5G and the effects on IoT product design
There is a huge buzz these days around the impending roll out of 5G technology into the broad consumer and commercial marketplace. This heavily-hyped new technology will surely bring value to some applications. However, there are places where the advent of a ubiquitous 5G infrastructure simply does not matter. In the realm of IoT, the potential benefits are a lot less clear and far from ubiquitous.
As one considers the implications of 5G in developing and executing an IoT strategy, here are some of the key considerations:
What is 5G?
Broadly speaking, 5G is a next generation cellular system solution for enhanced communications. Current cellular technology in widespread use today is often referred to as 4G or 4G LTE. 5G represents major improvements to 4G infrastructure particularly focused on two key drivers:
- Increased communication speed with lower latency
- Increased bandwidth
Certain applications will take advantage of this enhanced capability. However, 5G is not a panacea for all and comes with a few challenges largely related to the higher frequency of the signal:
- The range for a tower or cell site will be significantly shorter for 5G than for lower frequency 4G
- Because the range is shorter, there will be a need for a vastly more elaborate and extensive network of cell sites in order to provide coverage
- 5G transmission has more of a problem transmitting through walls and foliage than lower frequency networks
- For battery powered end devices, the useful battery life will be lower than with existing infrastructure because the chipsets draw more power
Because of this, the cost and logistical challenges of deploying a broadly accessible 5G infrastructure will be enormous.
When will 5G be ubiquitous?
Despite the hype, it will be many years or longer before a ubiquitous 5G network is deployed and fully operational. Yes, indeed there are 5G -enabled phones coming out and, yes, the cell carriers are all hyping the start of 5G rollout. Hype aside, the fact is that even where 5G infrastructure is deployed, the coverage is often concentrated in limited regions. We are still a long time away from having a widespread 5G infrastructure available for most regions.
Considering the challenges and potential benefits of 5G infrastructure, the affect on IoT can now be considered.
Where 5G matters
5G helps in situations that need high speed communications and increased bandwidth beyond indoor applications, including applications that require extreme low latency, real-time communications or large data transfers. For example, a deployment of autonomous vehicles would need low latency. Real-time communications with access to shared processing infrastructure can help with highly complex analytics. An IoT application that has large data transfers could involve augmented reality where high bandwidth and speed are necessary for moving real-time video data.
IoT applications are doing quite well today without the use of 5G, but there are situations where having this could be an advantage. It is important to realize what the drivers behind 5G are. It is the large cellular carriers — such as Verizon, AT&T and Sprint — that view this as a means to compete with the large cable carriers that roll out wireless infrastructure in the Wi-Fi family. As the saying goes, follow the money.
Where 5G doesn’t matter
There are many situations today that simply do not require a 5G infrastructure. For example, applications that involve very small datasets where increased speed or bandwidth are irrelevant, edge computing applications where the processing of sensor data is performed locally, or applications that do not require real-time updates. 5G is not necessary in situations where sensor data needs to be communicated infrequently rather than continuously.
Many applications today simply do not require the benefits that 5G can bring. This is obvious in the range of products in the consumer, commercial, medical and manufacturing industries that work without a 5G infrastructure.
In summary, 5G will bring benefits in the next decade to a range of IoT applications where its fundamental capabilities are useful. A majority of the current IoT solutions have little or no need for the unique capabilities of 5G, especially considering the disadvantages for implementing 5G hardware. While 5G is coming, it will be a long time before it is widely available and will not be a benefit to all IoT applications.
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