Phillips 66, one of the nation's biggest oil refiners, is testing a private 4G LTE wireless network using AT&T's spectrum and Accenture's integration services.
The network covers fully a third of the 2,300 acres that comprise Phillips 66's massive Alliance refinery in Belle Chasse, Louisiana, which is about 25 miles south of New Orleans in Plaquemines Parish. The network uses AT&T's 700MHz and 1900MHz spectrum licenses.
The companies declined to provide many key specifics around the deployment, including which equipment vendors they're using, what specific applications they might be looking to enable and how much money they're spending on the effort.
"While we cannot disclose details, the private cellular solution enables both enterprise mobility, e.g., tablets, phones, and provides the necessary coverage and capacity to support industrial systems to enable 4G and 5G use cases," an Accenture representative wrote in response to questions from Light Reading.
An executive from Phillips 66 highlighted the company's interest in the technology initially as a way to plug coverage gaps in public wireless networks but also to more fully enter the Internet of things (IoT) and 5G arena.
Coverage, and edge computing
"Mobile applications are central to our day-to-day business activities – we use them for safety inspection forms for oil distillation units, capacity tracking and more – so connectivity is critical to keeping our operations running," Zhanna Golodryga, SVP and chief digital and administrative officer at Phillips 66, said in a release. "The results of the proof of concept are promising. This private cellular network can address existing coverage gaps today and potentially lays the foundation for pervasive connectivity to enable upcoming use cases based on IIoT [industrial IoT] and 5G."
Edge computing played a big role in driving Phillips 66 to deploy its private network. "Security is key for Philipps 66 and its customers," an Accenture representative wrote in response to questions from Light Reading, explaining that the energy company deployed AT&T's "Multi-Access Edge Computing" (MEC) solution partly to route select data from its employees to a local processor. "AT&T's Multi-Access Edge Computing solution allows P66's data to be processed locally, mitigating the risk of theft or illegal access while providing better connectivity and coverage in a cost-effective way by taking advantage of AT&T's licensed spectrum."
"We will also work with Phillips 66 to bring ecosystem partners to their private cellular network to give a complete end-to-end view of what is happening across the refineries and its supply chain, so that they can continue to innovate," added Mary Beth Gracy, Accenture's client account lead for Phillips 66, in the company's release.
A rise in private networks
These kinds of private wireless networks represent a major new opportunity for operators like AT&T and their partners and equipment suppliers. After all, Phillips 66 employs more than 850 people at its refinery in Belle Chasse, and that's just one of the 14 refineries the company operates around the country.
Further, energy companies like Phillips 66 aren't the only ones that have expressed interest in building their own private wireless networks. Delivery and logistics companies like UPS, government facilities like the Pantex nuclear disassembly plant in Texas, utility providers like Ameren and the New York Power Authority (NYPA), and industrial companies like Halliburton and Schlumberger have also registered their interest in the trend.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that equipment vendors like Ericsson and Nokia have been crowing about the private wireless opportunity. For example, Ericsson's CEO said the company signed an agreement with China Mobile and Shaoguan Steel Group in Guangdong, China, in 2019 to jointly build a 5G smart mill and explore 5G industrialization in the private wireless setting. Meantime, Nokia has boasted of more than 100 private wireless network installations around the globe.
Exactly how the market might develop remains unclear, however, given that most private networks could be kept as private as Phillips 66 has kept the details of its network test.