It is practically impossible to attend telecommunications industry conferences in 2016 without being inundated with a flurry of 5G-related press releases and marketing announcements. Operators in key markets around the globe have already begun announcing 5G technology trials and likely 5G “launch dates” for their networks, despite the fact that the vast majority of 5G standards will not even be finalized before 2020. Such is the nature of competition in the industry, that high-profile mobile operators feel the need to stake their claims to 5G leadership, many years before a comprehensive build-out of 5G technologies is even commercially viable. At the Telecommunications Industry Association’s 2016 Network of the Future conference in Dallas, Texas, the week of June 6th, discussion about the rise and interplay of 5G and the Internet of Things technologies dominated conference discussion and presentation. In particular, the primary focus of the panel I moderated was examining the new use cases and benefits that 5G will bring to IoT solutions.
In discussing the future mix of 5G and IoT technologies, one of the key themes of the 5G IoT panel was how the capabilities and complexity of 5G architecture will translate into new IoT solution design. Depending on one’s point of view, the broader 5G architecture vision actually envelopes long-term integration and management of existing LTE networks as well as other access networks. Therefore, the panellists from Ericsson, InterDigital and Huawei emphasized that the reality of 5G IoT will embrace a complex mix of LTE-based IoT solutions as well as future IoT applications that fully leverage the high-speed, low-latency capabilities that 5G is designed to deliver. In this manner, the panel emphasized the expectation that 5G will create a unique foundation for mobile network operators to compete for both massive volume IoT applications, through the deployment of LTE-M1 and LTE-M2 modules, and highly focused applications that will require the unique features of the future 5G air interface.
Using the standards process as the measure of 5G development and deployment, the actual implementation of 5G networks is likely only in the 2021-2022 timeframe, so the short-term impact on the M2M and IoT ecosystems is practically nil. However, 5G represents a complex combination of a new radio access interface, core network architectural shifts and upgrades, as well as an ambitious plan to expand the usage of radio frequencies to include unlicensed spectrum and licensed spectrum up to 6GHz and beyond. As a result of this multifaceted approach, the mobile market will begin to implement the “legacy” 4G elements of 5G in 2017-2018 with new IoT focused modules and improved LTE network enhancements. We expect the non-LTE 5G elements and topologies begin to become commercialized initially in 2020-2022. However it won’t all be clear sailing. To realise the full potential of the 5G air interface, MNOs will need to expand spectrum holdings, improve spectral efficiency and significantly increase the densification of cell sites, each at a 10-fold pace. This will create logistical and regulatory challenges in terms of finding sites and clearing and securing necessary spectrum.
So with all this complexity, what does the 5G future mean to IoT? For massive deployment IoT applications, our panellists emphasized that the 5G core network will help MNOs establish “network slices” that establish frameworks for quality-of-service, provisioning and security parameters unique to each IoT solution and/or class of device/service. These “slices” will help MNOs better manage the technical performance of IoT solutions as well as the economics of IoT service provisioning. This level of management is crucial for MNOs to be able to compete in the low-cost IoT connectivity space in a profitable manner, especially against LPWA players (e.g. SigFox, LoRa and Ingenu) and alternative network providers such as Silver Spring Networks and other mesh network players. Beyond the massive IoT deployment categories, panellists pointed to 5G data speeds and low latency capabilities as the backbone for new deployment possibilities in Industrie 4.0 manufacturing applications, automated vehicles and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications in city centres, next-gen medical applications such as remote surgery, and in energy distribution applications such as virtual power plant management that require real-time, high-volume big data analytics to properly manage energy in-take and distribution across diverse renewable and conventional energy sources. These 5G applications strike the careful balance of leveraging Gigabit-per-second data speeds and ultra-low latency while respecting the mobility and coverage limitations that are likely to plague high-end 5G networks well into the future.
Over the last 6 months Machina Research has published a series of reports on the impact of 5G on IoT as part of its M2M Strategies Research Stream.