How IoT Device Manufacturers Can Take Advantage of The New Capabilities of 5G Cellular Networking Technology
By Rabee Alhayek
EMEA Vertical Segment Manager (Wireless Connectivity), Future Electronics
Read this to find out about:
- Why 5G is an ideal technology for low-power, low data-rate IoT device connectivity
- The three network types supported by 5G infrastructure
- How suppliers are mobilizing to provide off-the-shelf 5G modules for IoT end-points
The mobile phone networking, or cellular communications, industry likes to give the impression that its technology advances in a series of occasional but massive leaps. This is reflected in the terminology it uses: moving from 2G to 3G to 4G and now to 5G, it conceives of each stage as a new ‘generation’. This could be taken to imply that each iteration of the mobile phone network is completely new, and with its birth the previous generation is put to rest.
This works well as marketing, allowing the industry to build great excitement around each new generation – excitement which drives sales of replacement handsets and the infrastructure required to support them.
But how helpful is it to developers of IoT equipment which needs to connect to the cloud via a cellular network? And how much does the launch of the next generation of 5G equipment affect embedded device manufacturers today, which are in many cases using 2G, 3G or 4G networks to connect their products to the internet?
Evolution Not Revolution
There is no doubt that the introduction of 5G technology has serious implications for makers of IoT devices: 5G technology was developed in part precisely to enable the vision of pervasive networking. In the ‘smart city’, for instance, technology architects are forecasting the provision of dense concentrations of millions of IoT devices served by thousands of micro-base stations. It is 5G technology which enables hundreds of thousands of devices to gain internet access via the same shared base station. So smart city technology, in which every lamp post, traffic signal, advertising display panel, bus or tram stop and electric vehicle charging station has its own internet connection, is a natural use case for 5G. For IoT device makers, this vision for the mass deployment of cloud connectivity will be shaping product development programmes.
But let us not be deceived by the marketing ploys of the mobile phone industry: cellular networking technology does not in fact move in huge generational leaps, but in a series of smaller steps, gradually introducing new capabilities and features, proving and refining them, and then embedding them in future iterations.
So for instance complex antenna designs, known as Multiple In, Multiple Out (MIMO) arrays, are a feature of the latest iterations of Long Term Evolution (LTE) 4G networks, but will come into their own when deployed in 5G infrastructure.
For IoT device designers, the huge change which matters most is not the step from 4G to 5G, but a step which has already happened: the split at the 4G node between mobile broadband and mobile narrowband networking, as shown in Figure 1.
Fig. 1: the most important development in cellular networking was the introduction of narrowband technologies. (Image credit: Future Electronics)
As this diagram shows, there is an abrupt fork at the 4G node: here, it was no longer feasible for machines with low-power requirements and carrying low volumes of data traffic to share the same network systems as consumer handsets, which require mobile broadband capability, and which have a large battery capacity.
Figure 1 also shows that 5G narrowband network technology is a natural development of previous narrowband systems, such as Cat-M1 and NB-IoT.
How 5G Supports IoT Use Cases
So how actively do IoT device designers need to be preparing to evolve their products to take advantage of 5G capabilities? In fact, 5G deployment was already under way in major cities around the globe in 2020. The architecture of 5G networking provides for three main categories of user (see Figure 2):
- eMBB (enhanced Mobile Broadband) – supports very high data-transfer rates, sufficient for instance to enable consumers to watch HD or UHD content on their handset
- uRLLC (ultra-Reliable and Low-Latency Communications) – provides low-latency, deterministic data-transfer operations for use in safety-critical and high-reliability applications such as autonomous vehicles and vehicle-to-vehicle communications
- mMTC (massive Machine-Type Communications) – the flavour of 5G which supports very high-density connection of IoT devices – as many as 1 million connected devices in an area of just 1km2
Fig. 2: applications for the three main flavours of 5G technology. (Image credit: Future Electronics)
For devices connected today via a cellular Low-Power Wide-Area Networking (LPWAN) technology such as CATM or NB2, it is the mMTC element of 5G networks which will provide the low-power operation and reliable connectivity that they require.
And already features of the new 5G technology are being introduced into components available for use in embedded products under development today: by the start of 2020, new RF ICs were available which offered improved connectivity and lower power consumption thanks to their implementation of new features – Power Saving Mode (PSM) and extended Discontinued Reception (eDRX) – that are core elements of the 5G mMTC specification.
Of course, the flavour of 5G technology adopted in an embedded device design depends entirely on the use case. Choosing the right 5G technology for IOT systems should take into account seven important criteria mapped in Figure 3:
Fig. 3: the three flavours of 5G technology have contrasting and complementary characteristics. (Image credit: Future Electronics)
As this diagram shows, mMTC scores highly for battery life and connection density, but is optimised for fixed placement, as it scores low on mobility. IoT devices which perform mobile asset tracking, for instance, will often be better served by a different 5G technology such as uRLLC, while accepting a trade-off in terms of power consumption.
Roadmap For Suppliers of 5G Components
Cellular networking is a dynamic commercial and technical environment: nevertheless, for embedded device manufacturers, there is a clear pathway extending the narrowband and low-power capabilities of 4G into the 5G era. At the same time, the industrial market will benefit from the uRLLC and mMTC flavours of 5G to allow for new connectivity applications in factory automation and Industry 4.0.
The low-power features of 5G modems will provide for longer battery lifetimes and faster connection and disconnection to and from the network, allowing devices to wake up and transmit information, then quickly disconnect and return to sleep mode.
From the component suppliers’ perspective, the short-term picture of network coverage is somewhat unclear, so they have adopted a strategy of developing combination modems which support CATM, NB-IoT and 2G fallback, to minimise the development risk for projects coming to market in the near future.
But 5G networks and the 5G ecosystem will grow fast over the coming years, for both IoT and mobile broadband applications, and embedded developers should be ready to take advantage immediately.
And Future Electronics can support developers in their evolution towards 5G. It does so today by providing 5G-ready LPWAN products and modules from manufacturers such as Gemalto (part of the Thales Group), Fibocom, Murata and Renesas. It also supports customers in the transition to 5G by offering expert technical advice from its Future Connectivity Solutions specialists and from its connectivity Centre of Excellence based in Paris, France.