How 5G can unlock IoT's potential

The Internet of Things will involve an astounding amount of data—and the next generation of wireless communications could play a key role.

executive guide

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The emergence of 5G, the fifth generation of wireless mobile communications, will no doubt have a major impact on how these services are delivered. Among the potential advantages are high data rates, reduced latency, energy savings, cost reductions, and higher system capacity.

One of the areas 5G technology has the potential to affect in a big way is the Internet of Things (IoT). But just how large an impact will it be, and in what ways can 5G help unlock the enormous potential of IoT for businesses as well as consumers?

Also: What 5G wireless devices will do that 4G cannot

Slow rollout

Broad availability of 5G will not happen overnight. "Deployment of full 5G is some way away yet," said Paul Bevan, research director for IT Infrastructure at advisory and consulting firm Bloor. "We are likely to see a rolling deployment of some 5G capabilities from 2020 onwards," and best estimates are that full-scale 5G deployments are not likely until around 2025, he said.

Adoption will be patchy to start with, Bevan said. "By 2025 some verticals or use cases may have just crossed the chasm, but many will still be in the visionary phase," he said.

For enterprises, 5G will be a technology enabler but not a solution in itself. "A number of vertical industry use cases have been suggested and are being investigated," Bevan said. These will probably involve robotics, artificial intelligence/machine learning, and big data analytics -- to name but a few. 

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Each will have different requirements in terms of data rate, speed, latency, reliability, coverage, density, and location accuracy, Bevan said. The rate of enterprise adoption and rollout will depend on both the perceived business value of the use cases and the rate at which each of the required 5G capabilities is delivered.

Economic factors will also impact the rollout of 5G. "Network operators face significant capital investments in the coming years on top of their already significant investments in 4G," Bevan said. "Understanding the route to profitable revenue and the collaborations that are necessary, will determine both the pace of deployment of 5G and the structure of the supply side market."

SEE: How 5G will transform business (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

Network operators will also be looking to a range of new tools and techniques to reduce both the capital and operating costs of future 5G networks, Bevan noted. These include, but are not restricted to,  automated operations at the edge, software-defined networking (SDN), network function virtualization (NFV), and Open Compute Project (OCP) hardware configurations.

Impact on IoT 

What impact 5G will have on IoT depends on one's definition of IoT and whether it includes smartphones, Bevan said. It's likely that mobile online gaming, video streaming and virtual and augmented reality will be the initial targets of 5G, he said.

"Much business-oriented IoT will happen without the need for 5G, or is already happening utilizing existing 4G services, Bevan said. "It is in areas requiring low latency, such as autonomous vehicles or, further down the track, remote robotic surgery that 5G really comes into its own."

The biggest impact for business will be in the ability of 5G to handle massive data volumes with high transaction rates from remote and/or mobile locations. The ability to capture data from remote sensors, transfer it to large data centers, and apply both AI and machine leaning and data science techniques to it for near real-time analysis is where enterprises are likely to see the biggest early gains, Bevan said.


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One class of 5G IoT use-cases, categorized under the term ultra-reliable low-latency communications (URLLC), will slowly ramp up throughout the 2020s, said Patrick Filkins, senior research analyst, IoT and mobile network infrastructure, at research firm International Data Corp. (IDC).

"These services are likely to require adjacent investment in a distributed 5G core and edge computing, located closer to the end-points," Filkins said. Telcos will be able to tailor network connectivity for specific vertical applications by delivering customized service-level agreements (SLAs). "In my opinion, that's where 5G will begin to flex its era-defining muscles," he said.

The strength of 5G will be in its ability to address not only the low-power wide-area network (LPWAN) IoT use-case -- which is about providing a low-cost option to connect devices with low requirements from the network -- but simultaneously address the IoT use cases that fall into the URLLC segment, Filkins said.

"It is realistic to envision an enterprise which may have demands for both network scenarios," Filkins said. "Delivering both from a singular, converged architecture could become very compelling, from a simplicity and cost-reduction viewpoint."

Industry breakdown

Some sectors are likely to be affected more than others by the emergence of 5G and IoT.

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For example, in healthcare they could contribute to improving well-being in the population, through predicting potential individuals' health problems and organizing early medical interventions. Remote robotic surgery can improve patient outcomes and reduce costs. "IoT and 5G will be critical elements in our ability to deliver sustainable health services," Bevan said.

In manufacturing and integrated supply chains, the technologies will enable automation and coordination of manufacturing processes across geographically and organizationally dispersed units, Bevan said. This will be accomplished via connected factories, reducing costs and increasing agility.

Also: CES 2019: Are these newly launched '5G' services truly 5G wireless?

In the public sector such as municipal governments, 5G and IoT can help hasten the development of smart cities.

Theoretically, all industries will benefit from 5G technology for IoT, as they will be able to independently design or co-design -- with a service provider -- networks based on their unique needs related to latency, capacity, and reliability, Filkins said.

IoT without 5G

Just because 5G might enhance some aspects of IoT doesn't mean IoT will be dependent on the next generation of wireless network capability.

"It needs to be stressed that not all IoT devices need 5G," Bevan said. "Probably less than half of all the data generated by IoT devices will need to be transferred to centralized data centers."

Satellite communications need to be factored into the equation, particularly for less densely populated, rural areas and also for applications where location accuracy of moving assets is critical, Bevan noted.

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