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Broadband IoT set to overtake 2G and 3G

Broadband IoT set to overtake 2G and 3G

Today, Ericsson unveiled their June Mobility Report, which highlights key projections for the next phase of 5G in the U.S. and abroad, as well as insights on AI, 5G spectrum and wireless WAN. This year’s report also includes a focus on the future of IoT connectivity.

During 2021, broadband IoT (4G/5G) will overtake 2G and 3G as the segment that enables the biggest share of IoT applications. Broadband IoT mainly includes wide-area use cases that require higher throughput, lower latency and larger data volumes than Massive IoT technologies can support. 4G is already supporting many use cases in this segment and by the end of 2026, 44% of cellular IoT connections will be broadband IoT, with 4G connecting the majority.

Highlights from the report include:

  • By 2026, there will be over 26.4 billion IoT connections
  • Massive IoT technology (NB-IoT and Cat-M) connections are forecast to increase by almost 80% during 2021, reaching almost 330 million connections. In 2026, these technologies are forecast to comprise 46% of all cellular IoT connections
  • Ericsson expects 5G to extend its reach to more IoT device types during the second half of 2021. This includes cameras, VR headsets and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)
  • Deployment of the first commercial devices supporting time-critical communications is expected during 2022

The Massive IoT technologies NB-IoT and Cat-M1 continue to be rolled out around the world, with the number of connections expected to increase by almost 80 percent during 2021 to reach close to 330 million. In 2026, these technologies are forecast to make up 46 percent of all cellular IoT connections.

Massive IoT primarily consists of wide-area use cases, connecting large numbers of low-complexity, low-cost devices with long battery life and relatively low throughput. About 120 service providers have commercially launched NB-IoT and 55 have launched Cat-M. NB-IoT and Cat-M technologies complement each other, and approximately 40 service providers have launched both technologies.

Cat-M and NB-IoT follow a smooth evolution path into 5G networks and can continue to be deployed in the same bands as today, even when 5G is introduced. Today’s most commonly deployed Massive IoT devices include various types of meters, sensors and tracking devices, as these and corresponding applications (smart metering, asset tracking) are easy to integrate and deploy end-to-end.

Broadband IoT mainly includes wide-area use cases that require higher throughput, lower latency and larger data volumes than Massive IoT technologies can support. 4G is already supporting many use cases in this segment. By the end of 2026, 44 percent of cellular IoT connections will be broadband IoT, with 4G connecting the majority. With the introduction of 5G New Radio (NR) in old and new spectrum, throughput data rates will increase substantially for this segment.

Critical IoT is intended for time-critical communications in both wide- and local-area use cases that require guaranteed data delivery with specified latency targets. Critical IoT will be introduced in 5G networks with the advanced time-critical communication capabilities of 5G NR. It will enable a wide range of time-critical services for consumers, enterprises and public institutions across various sectors. Typical use cases include cloud-based AR/VR, remote control of machines and vehicles, cloud robotics, advanced cloud gaming and real-time coordination and control of machines and processes. Deployment of the first commercial devices supporting time-critical communications is expected during 2022.

The removal of inactive cellular IoT connections in China indicates a substantial share of inactive connections, leading us to revise our estimate for 2020 from 1.7 billion to 1.6 billion cellular IoT connections and adjust the overall forecast accordingly.

IoT devices

The first IoT devices to leverage 5G capabilities have been industry routers and vehicles. The IoT devices released in 2020 were limited to supporting 5G non-standalone (NSA) architecture. In the first half of 2021, we have seen the first IoT devices with 5G standalone (SA) capability. 5G SA-capable modules from a few vendors are already available, and additional module vendors are expected to fuel the IoT ecosystem.

We expect to see 5G extend its reach to more IoT device types during the second half of 2021, such as cameras, VR headsets and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Some of these use cases are expected to evolve with time critical communication capabilities during 2022.

chart: cellular iot connections by technology 2015-2026

Figure 11: Cellular IoT connections by technology (billion)

IoT connections (billion)

IoT 2020 2026 CAGR
Wide-area IoT 1.7 5.8 23%
Cellular IoT* 1.6 5.4 23%
Short-range IoT 10.7 20.6 12%
Total 12.4 26.4 13%
*These figures are also included in the figures for Wide-area IoT

Download the Ericsson Mobility Report – June 2021 edition

1 Cat-M includes both Cat-M1 and Cat-M2. Only Cat-M1 is being supported today.
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