There are times when some in the industry quietly wish 5G had been given another name. The capability leap is simply not comparable to that between 3G and 4G. As Intel’s VP for IoT explains, “the 2G networks were designed for voice; 3G for voice and data; and 4G for broadband internet experiences. With 5G, we’ll see computing capabilities fused with communications everywhere, so things like wearable devices don’t have to worry about computing power, because the network can do any processing needed.” The tech world may seem mobile now, but it’s about to become vastly more so – as the ability not only to connect countless previously standalone objects, but to do so with ultra-high speed and ultra-low latency as standard, transforms how we think about the role of connectivity in our lives. Around 25 billion connections are projected by 2025, a four-fold jump in less than a decade, and a disproportionate number of those connections will be mobile.
Much of the focus for the mobile industry in 5G’s rollout over the next year will therefore be in conjunction with Mobile IoT – the family of technologies encompassing LTE-M and NB-IoT – providing greater support to manufacturers and ecosystem players, as the natural mechanism by which many 5G use cases will be brought to market. It became clear in Q2 2018 that – far from being in conflict or competition with one another – 5G and Mobile IoT are already playing a mutually complementary role in bringing about the Internet of Things. It was announced at that time that LTE-M and NB-IoT would be included in the 5G mobile standards set by 3GPP, which provided impetus to operators and vendors to support their implementation in IoT deployments. The harmony between the 5G and Mobile IoT allows the limitations of existing use cases to be laid bare, and surpassed, to the benefit of all.
Take for instance unmanned aerial vehicles, or ‘drones’, the civilian potential for which is becoming increasingly apparent to operators, civic authorities and a wide range of vertical industries. Existing connectivity for drones typically relies on point-to-point satellite control, which requires large numbers of control stations along the flight path. The need to build and maintain these presents clear financial challenges, and limits the range at which most drones can operate at all – leaving them unviable for highly useful deployments in remote locations. The combination of LTE and 5G changes this completely, allowing the range and flexibility of non-line-of-sight transmission, while enabling cutting-edge security of on-board SIM.
There are overall three standout markets where the combination of 5G and Mobile IoT will be most pronounced in the near future; namely, smart homes, utilities and industrial IoT. Utilities form just one part of the broader shift to smart cities and smart homes, which are poised to make the jump from niche to mainstream phenomenon over the next six years – as consumers and civic authorities grow ever more conscious of waste with the onset of climate change, precision remote monitoring will quickly become an expectation, not an impressive option. As the hype fades over truly autonomous cars, as consumers and policymakers realise they really won’t be here much before 2025, automakers will focus on development of smart services for manual vehicles, chief among them navigation, in-car Wi-Fi, safety and infotainment. Car-to-car and car-to-road infrastructure communications, the ability of autonomous cars to drive without internet connectivity, and the no-collision tolerance demands of the public will not be widely in place before 2025 – the market will therefore focus on what is.
Much of the industrial IoT will depend on the low latency 5G offers to satisfy precision thresholds and real-time analytics, or investment will quickly dry up through poor early showing; its countless connected sensors will also require the low power demands of Mobile IoT, and the ability to operate with low-maintenance in harder-to-reach locations. The commercial importance of this can no better be illustrated than by the recent partnership between Samsung and AT&T, who announced recently they are working together on the application of virtual reality in smart factories through 5G.
So what will the year ahead actually look like – what are some key examples we should expect to see? One likely possibility is what might be called the ‘Amazonification’ of the IoT. Companies like Amazon are, as a result of improvements in processing and networking power, now able to radically simplify IT systems management for enterprise through delivery of cloud services. As, over 2019, the focus shifts increasingly from tech itself to the value of data, these complexity barriers will need to be addressed in IoT. Businesses frequently report that their greatest concerns about IoT centre around complexity – that there are too many diffuse elements to manage, meaning projects either fail or never commence in the first place. There will therefore be a turning point this year, led by device-to-cloud IoT solutions, to deliver management of data, networks and security via a single integrated solution – and, from there, we can expect immense scale to be achieved.
The bottom line for operators is that with this enormous spike in deployments, particularly with the dramatic expansion into consumer markets on the horizon, there will be far greater demand on cellular technologies as a whole. Among the key areas of collaboration between operators in the year ahead will therefore be roaming and interoperability: if a plethora of devices are newly connected at pace, and people themselves are increasingly mobile, how can we work together to avoid those user experiences proving a disappointment? These questions will certainly loom large in the Mobile IoT Summit at the Mobile World Congress in February, which is in effect the last before 5G starts coming into truly widespread use. Previous questions over how 5G and Mobile IoT could possibly come together will, by then, start to sound a little strange.