5G implementation is ready to stimulate the internet of things

Enlarge / Artist’s impression of automated IoT devices connected via 5G.

Aurich Lawson / Getty

It is true that inorganic users do not shout at customer service representatives or companies that talk to trash on Twitter. But connected devices can also benefit from some of the less obvious upgrades that 5G should deliver – and we, their organic overlords, could benefit in the long run.

You may have heard about 5G’s internet-of-things potential in such flashy statements as “5G will make every industry and every part of our lives better” (spoken by Meredith Attwell Baker, president of the CTIA wireless trading group, at the MWC America’s trade fair in 2017) and “It’s a whole new technology that heralds a new era of transformation” (from Ronan Dunne, executive vice president and CEO of Verizon’s consumer group, at the 2019 Web Summit conference).

But as with 5G in the context of smartphones and home broadband, the ripple effects referred to in statements are potentially huge – and it will take years to land on our shores. Yes, you’ve heard this before: the news is big, but it’s still early days.

Enormous mobile bandwidth for multiple players

The long-term card for 5G IoT promises to support a density of devices that goes far beyond what the current LTE generation can deliver – up to a million “things” per square kilometer, compared to nearly 61,000 under the current 4G. That density opens possibilities that today require a terrible amount of wired connectivity.

For example, precision-controlled factories can take advantage of the space in the air waves to implement extreme granular monitoring, and 5G IoT promises to do that work for less. “You can place tons of environmental sensors anywhere,” says Roger Entner, founder of Recon Analytics. “You can place a tag on any device.”

Enlarge / An automated robot production line at SIASUN Robot & Automation Co., Ltd. With high-density IoT implementations, everything on this photo can be monitored.

China News Service / Getty Images

“Either I upgrade this to fiber optic to connect the machines, or I use millimeter-wave 5G in the factory,” repeats Rüdiger Schicht, a senior partner at the Boston Consulting Group. “Everything we hear about the reliability and manageability of that infrastructure indicates that 5G is superior.”

Millimeter-wave 5G runs on frequency bands that start at 24 GHz, far above the frequencies used for LTE. The huge amounts of free spectrum above it provide gigabit speeds – at the expense of the range, which would be limited to around a thousand feet. However, that still exceeds the Wi-Fi range.

Low-band 5G on the same frequencies currently used for 4G does not allow a huge speed boost, but should at least cover much more ground, while mid-band 5G should offer a good mix of speed and coverage – at least once carriers have more free spectrum to offer that coverage. (If you want a quick refresher course on the different flavors of 5G, you can discuss our story from a few weeks ago!)

In the United States, resolving these spectrum issues depends on the recently announced plan of the Federal Communications Commission to auction 280 MHz of the so-called C-band spectrum, between 3.2 MHz and 3.98 MHz, according to an accelerated timetable that these could see tires in service in two to three years.

And that means there is time to sort things out. Companies are not exposing connected devices with millions.

The current 5G standard – formally speaking, 3GPP Release 15 – does not support the enormous device density that we are talking about. That will have to wait until Release 16, now in the final approval phase, although Entner warns that we will not see the compatible hardware for at least another year or two.

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