When discussing the impending 5G era, the focus tends to be on the incredibly high speeds and low latency promised, as well as the ability to automate processes, vehicles and machines. While these are undoubtedly very exciting aspects of 5G, they're certainly not the only elements of 5G.
In fact, the 5G era is split into three different segments of network categories—each containing its own capabilities that meet separate types of use cases. Before I outline these three segments, let's ensure we understand what I am referring to as 5G. I am discussing the new cellular technologies that were specified by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP)—a standardization co-op focused on telecommunications. In recent 3GPP releases, 5G was specified, as were other networks based on different spectrum bands.
I will leverage the next several articles to create a series on 5G and its three different segments: massive machine-type communications (mMTC), enhanced mobile broadband (emBB) and ultra-reliable low-latency communications (URLLC)—or, more simplistically, as it relates to the Internet of Things (IoT), massive IoT, critical IoT and ultra-reliable IoT. We are on the cusp of seeing the 5G era explode, creating new use cases we have not yet dreamed up. It is a tremendously thrilling time for IoT and technology as a whole, as it enables digital transformation more effectively than ever.
Mobile network operators have recognized that we need LPWA networks that allow billions of devices to connect while using less power, increasing their life cycles to 12 to 15 years. They have designed these networks to be part of the long-term evolution (LTE) era and enable coexistence with 4G and 5G—and even further down the line toward 6G—as the "network of networks" approach takes hold and enables a truly connected planet.
The two other cellular networks in that release, which are rolled into the 5G era, are narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) and long-term evolution for machine-type communications (LTE-M). Together, they are categorized as LPWA networks.
Imagine you are a farmer wanting to put 500 soil sensors in your fields so you can best support your crops. These devices are powerful in their ability to transform how you view your soil, but they are low in complexity in terms of telecommunication-typical devices. You would not bury 500 high-powered devices in your soil to take moisture and acidity readings. The same is true for the network connectivity used to connect these devices to the internet. You do not need 4G LTE pulling small byte-sized data every few minutes. It would be exceptionally costly, and the battery life would be painfully short.
This is where LPWA networks can be so important. They are designed to support these lower-complexity devices that spend most of their lifetimes in sleep mode. They can power on, take a reading, transmit the very small packet of data to the network and then return to sleep mode.
As we are seeing 2G and 3G networks shut down, LPWA networks are going to fill that gap—but with enhancements. These networks will offer reachability that suits widespread IoT solutions, such as the agriculture example. LPWA networks offer penetrability (think underground pipes and tank monitoring) on one hand and density (think thousands of devices in a very small area) on the other. Finally, LPWA networks are going to offer longevity and affordability because devices can be deployed in large numbers for potentially their entire lifetimes (a decade or more), and because they are only transmitting small packets of data, the usage costs are very feasible.
The Massive IoT Opportunity
This is where massive IoT is represented. The meaning lies in the name, where massive amounts of IoT devices will be connected to power smart applications across key verticals in the form of hundreds of use cases.
What kind of benefits can we see from connecting hundreds or thousands of devices in an IoT deployment? Returning to the agriculture example, devices can be monitoring not just soil but air quality to help ensure crops are healthy and nourished. Yields can be optimized, water use can be streamlined, and overall savings can be achieved while supporting sustainability and increasing output.
Other industries are no different. The logistics industry has been besieged these past several years, and the economy has felt the impact of a supply chain under duress. The analytics and intelligence that can be derived through granular visibility into all of the touchpoints from the manufacturing floor to the channel or doorstep can build agility and resiliency into this vital economic artery.
Manufacturing, healthcare, fleet, utilities, universities, business campuses, and on and on—you can start with one connection and potentially build IoT empires.
Strategy, Security And Stability
It's easy to look into a crystal ball and see a digitally enhanced world, but the fact remains that there is a responsibility in building these solutions. The benefits of massive IoT cannot be realized without the proper measures in place, building strategically and thoughtfully.
With so many endpoints potentially coming online, there is a broader attack surface, and different industries will have different risk appetites for the security requirements. Additionally, the solution should be built for the long term and have the potential to scale, so as not to be shortsighted—which means building resilience and security for new technologies and new applications within the use case.
IoT can revolutionize the world, and massive IoT is a major driver of positive change. Organizations can prepare with the necessary personnel, platforms, tools or even third-party providers to help achieve success.
My next article will focus on URLLC, the world of critical IoT and how real-time data analytics can revolutionize medicine, manufacturing and more.