The internet of things, already booming, can expect a big boost from 5G cellular technology as it becomes more available and as commercial services catch up with enhanced standards that are already in the pipeline.
“Because of the increased spectrum that is available to 5G, it increases the overall bandwidth and allows massive amount of Internet of Things devices to connect,” says Michelle Engarto, vice president wireless solutions and product line management at Corning, which, among other things, makes distributed antenna systems for in-building cellular products.
Several characteristics of 5G lend themselves to transforming industries and connectivity, says Steve Szabo, vice president, wireless, IoT, and partnerships at telecommunications provider Verizon Business.
One is ultra-high throughput. “We have seen in trials with vendors up to 4Gbps at peak speeds, which can give you a feel for what 5G is capable of,” Szabo says, with the potential to reach 10Gbps.
Another is high sensor density for data gathering, which will enable the digitisation of factory floors and more visualisation and productivity without the need for complex wiring or legacy technology.
“High-sensor density is all about putting sensors by the thousands [or] millions and leveraging them for asset tracking, alerts, etc.,” Szabo says. “5G on mmWave technology is built to handle millions of connected sensors and in fact is capable of managing a million connected devices” per square kilometre.
5G also enables ultra-low latency via Multi-Access Edge Compute (MEC), which moves workload processing to the edge.
Where 5G can help IoT
Just how much 5G will impact IoT and when depends in large part on the use case.
The primary attributes of 5G include significantly faster data throughput; support for massive machine-type communications in which large numbers of machines or devices communicate without any human interaction or control; and ultra-reliable, low-latency communication, says Bill Menezes, senior principal analyst at research firm Gartner.
The technology’s ultra-reliability comes from its ability to provide a stated quality of service or “real-time” communication vs. the best-efforts data delivery of Ethernet-based technologies such as Wi-Fi, Menezes says. In addition, 5G has a theoretical latency of less than one millisecond in later releases, he says, as opposed to 20 to 40 milliseconds typical in current generation Wi-Fi deployments.
All of these attributes “are relevant to IoT, but the degree of relevance depends on an IoT endpoint’s and application’s requirements,” Menezes says.
For example, an implementation of huge numbers of low-powered endpoints with an application that doesn’t require high data speeds or less than 10 milliseconds of latency to function properly might be a good fit.
Such a scenario will mainly leverage 5G’s future capability to support Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) connections, Menezes says, with device density theoretically up to a million low-powered endpoints per square kilometre. NB-IoT is a low-power wide area network radio technology standard that supports a range of cellular devices and services.
5G could also serve deployments of fewer devices that need lots of bandwidth. “A use case deploying surveillance video cameras would rely more on 5G’s high throughput/low latency capabilities, enabling ultra-high definition 8K, real-time video feeds with much lower requirements for device density,” Menezes says.
Automotive, manufacturing (smart factories), construction, and natural resources sectors such as mining and oil and gas are among the industries with 5G opportunities for IoT, Menezes says. “But requirements are broad and will vary by use case,” he says.
And 5G isn’t the best choice for all IoT networks. Organisations will continue to use a variety of connectivity including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Zigbee, and 4G NB-IoT, Menezes says. “Enterprises need to gauge what performance-specific attributes their implementation will require that the other platforms cannot provide in the needed deployment scenario,” he says.
How 5G fits with other options
IoT devices today are mostly connected via cabled technologies, Engarto says. These include both shielded twisted-pair LAN and coaxial cables. “In some limited areas Wi-Fi may have some usage,” but is not always ideal, she says. “5G enables many more sensors to be put in place without a need for cable and conduit for each cable,” Engarto says.
But the newer wireless technology “will be one of many networking solutions designed to address IoT’s full needs,” says Patrick Filkins, senior research analyst, IoT and mobile network infrastructure, at research firm IDC.
“For example, 5G can address endpoints that require any breadth of latency, reliability, and security,” Filkins says. “While 5G will be a Swiss-army knife solution to IoT, all from a single platform, some enterprises may not need the full breadth of 5G’s capabilities. In many cases, such as LPWAN [low-power WAN], you can achieve connectivity through alternatives such as LoRaWAN.”
Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi HaLoW will also play a role in dense, shorter-range IoT use cases, Filkins says, although with a potential loss in reliability.
“5G is an uplift from LTE when it comes to promising zero downtime communications, by baking in new technologies enabling near-zero packet loss,” Filkins says. Those technologies include Beamforming, network-fast failover (redundant infrastructure and topologies), wireless packet retrains, and software-defined network.
“Additionally, 5G leverages advanced synchronisation and other channel-dividing techniques that are leveraged to maximise dedicated spectrum channels, ensuring quality of service,” Filkins says. “This ensures [high] reliability in carrier 5G environments.”
Wi-Fi vs. 5G
Wi-Fi’s reliability is challenged foremost by its range, Filkins says. “You may be able to guarantee, or not, a service-level, but almost certainly only guarantee it over a short-to-medium range,” he says. Also, most Wi-Fi systems are deployed across unlicensed bands, he says, and the potential for interference becomes greater as more packets share channels.
Wi-Fi 6 helps with the reliability issue by splicing spectrum into resources units, Filkins says, but even with these improvements there’s still the spectrum problem itself, “which introduces potential for interference.”
Deployment costs, range, interference, and the capabilities of IoT devices are all factors in identifying the right primary or complementary connectivity option for an IoT implementation, Menezes says.
“Base the decision on the implementation’s network-performance requirements,” Menezes says. “So, if an endpoint or application doesn’t need 5G performance to function at the required level, that will help dictate the connectivity choice.”
Wi-Fi 6 or Zigbee might be perfectly suitable for some elements of a smart-building controls, but useless for a highly mobile wide area use, Menezes says.
“Further, endpoints using essentially commoditised connectivity technologies such as Bluetooth, Zigbee, RFID, or Wi-Fi may be significantly more cost effective in scenarios where 5G may be available but has not yet reached significant marketplace scale to make endpoints or network services competitive,” Menezes says.
In some cases, such as home use, Wi-Fi usually makes more sense for IoT than cellular, says Shree Dandekar, vice president, Global Product Organisation, at consumer goods manufacturer Whirlpool, which offers IoT services such as connected kitchen and laundry appliances.
“The tech world is pretty much aligned to this view, and it is unlikely that 5G technology changes this,” Dandekar says. “Even the cheapest cellular technology [NB-IoT or LTE-M] is significantly more expensive than Wi-Fi.”
On the other hand, Whirlpool’s factories are a different situation altogether. “That environment can be a challenge for Wi-Fi because of so much equipment and so many machines; it’s just a lot of metal that can impact a Wi-Fi signal,” says Michael Berendsen, vice president of IT.
The company is testing 5G on some of its autonomous vehicles at a washing machine plant in Ohio, “because we believe 5G could provide better coverage and be more consistent across such a large space,” Berendsen says.
Network slicing for better performance
Telecommunications carriers say networks will become increasingly more advanced as 5G matures, which will open up more possibilities for IoT.
“As the network evolves and improved modelling of edge structures with SDN [software-defined networking] is available, bandwidth will continue to improve,” says Jason Inskeep, director of the 5G Centre of Excellence at AT&T Business.
“Another highly anticipated function that 5G will bring is network slicing,” allowing for dedicated resource blocks on the radio access network (RAN), Inskeep says. In this way, cellular networks start to take on the feel of multi-protocol label switching (MPLS) networks, “creating an opportunity for even higher performance to drive technologies like autonomous cars or ‘over the horizon’ drone operation,” he says.
5G “could maintain certain performance thresholds in each slice of the cellular network, an attribute once only available on the wired side,” Inskeep says.
“These cars and drones are gathering a lot of data that needs to be processed quickly in order to make them more viable. The speed and lower latency that 5G and edge computing offers from end to end combined with network slicing to give the data its own ‘lane’ will help that data get back to the device in significantly less time.”
When 5G network slicing intersects with IoT, “you begin to see how the totality of the 5G platform could be useful, particularly in organisations that have many use cases running concurrently,” Filkins says.
“One network slice could be dedicated to an LPWAN IoT initiative, while another could connect endpoints requiring ultra-low latency,” Filkins says. “With 5G, you theoretically create a single platform capable of addressing IoT use cases traditionally addressed by overlaying a combination of wired and wireless links. With 5G, you can use wireless to solve most of those use cases from a single platform.”
From a management and operating-expenses perspective, this should be compelling for organisations looking to enhance the value of IoT, Filkins says.
Better endpoint density is coming
An additional area of future improvement is enabling more sessions per radio per square kilometre, Inskeep says. “The number exponentially grows as we move to 5G, thus [the] density of endpoints can increase,” he says. “As this happens, the ecosystem can become more intelligent” and the functionality of IoT can increase.
“We are just scratching the surface of the power of 5G when it comes to IoT,” Szabo says. “The potential of 5G to transform business operations is immense, enabling use cases that don't exist today.”
For example, a 5G network will potentially support more than two million connected sensors per square mile, Szabo says. “Collaboration with 3D virtual reality could help engineers, designers, and marketing teams compare designs on new products at near-zero lag.”
Verizon is working with partners and developers to expand its 5G ecosystem, Szabo says. In July 2020, it announced plans to simplify and accelerate end-to-end IoT environments.
Part of this is integrating the carrier’s 5G/LTE Network, ThingSpace IoT platform (which allows companies to prototype, test, and connect IoTdevices on the Verizon network), and Critical Asset Sensor devices (which monitor conditions such as light, temperature, and pressure) with Microsoft’s Azure cloud to enable IoT developers to create new applications quickly and efficiently.
Future iterations of 5G (releases 16 and 17) include many of the specifications relevant to advanced NB-IoT, ultra-low latency, and network slicing that are applicable to various types of IoT use cases, Menezes says.
“Organisations looking at 5G as a primary or complementary [resource] need to match their roadmap for planned IoT use cases or applications—or for needed performance updates to existing IoT implementations—with the commercial availability of services and infrastructure based on advanced 5G releases,” Menezes says.
5G could prompt greater use of IoT
Experts say the ongoing advances in 5G could help spur IoT initiatives.
“5G will cause explosive growth of IoT devices in the market,” Engarto says. The ultra-low latency of 5G will pave the way for newer use cases such as augmented and virtual reality, “and opens up newer ground-breaking possibilities in digitising verticals like health care, smart manufacturing, and education,” she says. “It could be a key enabler to building smarter cities with advancement in transportation, public safety, and even retail.”
Massive machine-to-machine communication combined with 5G’s coming incorporation of NB-IoT capabilities, could further encourage IoT deployments, Menezes says. This could include smart cities that might face less scalability with other mobile wireless technologies such as 4G LTE or LAN wireless such as Wi-Fi, Menezes says.
“5G in its later releases has the ability to support significantly more devices in its coverage area,” Menezes says. “Also, in its mid- and low-band spectrum [it] will transmit further and thereby cover larger areas than Wi-Fi.”
The emergence of 5G will “significantly accelerate the process of sensorisation to drive digital transformation in industries,” Szabo says.
“Massive IoT can support up to 12 times the sensor density, and technologies [such as NB-IoT] will evolve. Data collection from these along with cloud-based features such as digital twins will enable near-real-time simulations, assessment, prediction [and] remediation.”
IoT “is really an exercise in bridging the technology capabilities with improving business operations,” Filkins says. “No one deploys an IoT project simply to use a new technology. In certain industries, 5G will be forefront in driving industrial automation, by enabling both indoor and outdoor environments to seamlessly connect.”