While 4G was targeted at delivering mobile broadband, 5G has a more ambitious set of applications. In my previous article (Why We Need 5G – Tech Juice Oct 2018) I covered how 5G aims to also support Massive IoT and Critical Communications and in this article we’ll take a closer look at how that plays out for IoT applications.

Research by Cisco predicts that cellular connectivity will be the dominant connectivity for machine type communication by 2021 with more than 60% market share across all formats and 4G/5G alone accounting for 46%, compared to 31% for LPWAN. Whether you believe this or not it’s clear cellular will have a role to play in IoT so how might that look?

Why Cellular

First of all let’s look at why cellular is attractive for IoT deployments versus other alternatives. When selecting a connectivity network there are a number fundamental characteristics required to provide a robust infrastructure, cellular has those in spades. It’s now an extremely mature eco-system with global standards that operates in licensed spectrum, with end to end security and redundancy built in and of course the promise of future ubiquitous connectivity. So it has a lot to recommend it however, the focus of previous generations on mobile broadband has meant that important IoT requirements like low cost, low data rate and low power have been ignored. Now with 5G expansion into IoT these are starting to be addressed.

New standards such as Cat M1 and Cat NBIoT are being deployed that address these deficiencies. These standards are reducing the complexity of the modem and introducing more efficient signalling and power saving modes to lower cost and power consumption. They also increase the link budget so that deeper coverage can be achieved, as some applications maybe below ground, and incorporate signalling optimisations that deliver higher node densities. In 5G these optimisations will continue to provide better support for sporadic data, mesh networking and system software updates.

But what additional capabilities could 5G provide? Ultra high availability, ultra reliable and low latency as well as higher data are important in some applications. 5G provides a scalable architecture that can support these requirements as required through Network Slicing. Network Slicing is a key part of the 5G core network; in essence it creates a virtual network that packages up the capabilities that are needed for a given application. You can think of it as selecting what you need from a menu of possible capabilities and packaging them up in a self contained network that can be changed on the fly. Edge computing is another 5G capability that holds a lot of promise for IoT. With edge computing IoT devices can hand-off complex processing to servers that are near the network edge, and so close to the actual devices, for applications that need fast response times.

How will IoT evolve?

IoT like many technology transitions may take some time before one format dominates so many formats and radio standards will co-exist for many years. LoRa and Sigfox already enjoy significant coverage in many geographies and these are industries that rarely update infrastructure so they will be around for a while. In the end though once 5G delivers ubiquitous connectivity its very nature means it is well placed to dominate but, that might take 10 years or more. The good news though is 5G is actually radio agnostic so all the existing technologies can be incorporated to create a virtual network slice that delivers the actual capabilities required. 5G will provide the co-ordination and control to deliver end-to-end connectivity in these scenarios. One network to rule them all!