Wait for 5G? The IoT needn’t hold its breath
Wait for 5G? The IoT needn't hold its breath.

Wait for 5G? The IoT needn’t hold its breath

When it comes to the connection between 5G and the IoT, confusion reigns.

Some uncertainty is, perhaps, to be expected. After all, 5G, the fifth generation of mobile network technology, is still some way off – but it is frequently touted as ‘the future of the IoT’, not least by mobile network operators who urgently need to tap into new revenue streams, in order to offset dwindling growth in mobile phone contracts with new business-to-business IoT deals. In other words, they would say that, wouldn’t they?

The real picture is in fact far more mixed, giving rise to much bewilderment among IoT adopters.

This point was neatly encapsulated by research published this week by IT market research company Gartner. In the firm’s survey of 200 IT and business leaders worldwide, it found that almost six out of ten (57 percent) of respondents believe that their organization’s main intention for 5G is to use it to drive IoT communications.

Read more: IoB Insiders: The certain uncertainties of 5G

A surprising result

Gartner analyst Sylvain Fabre says he was taken aback by the result. “This finding is surprising, as the number of deployed ‘things’ that need cellular connectivity won’t exceed the capacity of existing IoT technologies before 2023 in most regions,” he said. And even once fully implemented, he added, 5G will suit only a narrow subset of IoT use cases.

It’s an important point. Most 5G enthusiasts are quick to point to its promises of high bandwidth and low latency. These networks will allow the transmission of billions of bits versus the thousands offered by 4G networks, they argue, and at speeds of up to 1 millisecond, as opposed to 40 milliseconds on 4G. And when it comes to connection density, a 5G network can provide up to a million connections per square kilometres, while 4G only provides thousands.

But a vast number of IoT applications don’t need high bandwidth and they don’t need low latency. A sensor on a smart utilities network doesn’t need to send huge amounts of data, isn’t particularly sensitive to latency and may only need to send data every 10 minutes or so.

There are some exceptions, of course, particularly IoT applications in healthcare and road safety, for example. But the fact remains that many IoT use cases are already amply supported by existing low-power, wide-area networking (LPWAN) technologies running on unlicensed spectrum – that is, spectrum that isn’t owned (or charged for) by the mobile network companies.

Read more: UK government pledges £16 million investment in 5G test network

Plenty of options

As Gartner’s Mr Fabre indicates, many connectivity options are equally proven and, by default, less expensive than the licensed-spectrum alternatives. “Use of Wi-Fi, Zigbee or Bluetooth, for example, would avoid the cost and complexity associated with cellular communications,” he points out.

And to muddy the waters further, when 5G does finally emerge, it looks likely to combine licensed and unlicensed technologies, in any case. That’s because many mobile network operators are starting to realize that they have an opportunity to augment the services they provide via the licensed bands that they own, especially in crowded indoor and outdoor public spaces, with unlicensed spectrum via small cells.

Convergence, then, will be key, as the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) points out in its November 2016 report, Roadmap for Coexistence and Convergence in 5G. In its industry survey, 62 percent of respondents believe that 5G will be a combination of licensed and unlicensed technologies and almost nine out of ten (88 percent) agree that unlicensed spectrum technologies are “critical for the development of 5G”.

Read more: 5G will drive IoT adoption, Ericsson claims

Still some way off

What is perhaps more immediately worrying, however, is the expressed belief of 84 percent of Gartner’s respondents that 5G will be widely available by 2020.

Not so, says Mr Fabre: he reckons that, by then, only 3 percent of the world’s network-owning mobile communications service providers will have launched 5G networks commercially. From studying these companies’ roll-out plans, he adds, widespread availability doesn’t seem likely before 2022.

So the message is clear: no organization should be waiting for 5G to get started on IoT. It simply doesn’t make sense to postpone these decisions, based on the promises currently being made for the technology.