Internet of Things (IoT) market watchers are eagerly awaiting 3GPP’s upcoming Release 16 which will introduce new standards for the cellular IoT. These standards (5G-IoT) will not only enable high throughput rates, ultra-high reliability and ultra-low latency but will also support a million IoT devices per square kilometre. When comparing 5G to existing connectivity options like narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) which support 60,680 devices per square kilometre, it becomes readily apparent that 5G will be the catalyst for the widespread proliferation of IoT devices and applications.
5G-IoT will enable several cellular IoT uses cases that were thought to have been unfeasible due to throughput and performance limitations. In particular, current Industry 4.0 solutions generally use wired connectivity options due to penetration and throughput issues with wireless connections. With the advent of 5G networks, large industrial players can deploy IoT systems based on reliable 5G connectivity, through public or private networks.
In an industrial setting, these IoT solutions can empower workers with advanced tools such as augmented reality (AR) headsets and provide data to machine learning models that guide predictive maintenance processes, all without the extensive wiring associated with the deployment of non-wireless solutions. Indeed in Germany, the industrial conglomerate Bosch has already applied for private 5G licenses to deploy 5G campus networks as part of its factories of the future initiative.
The benefits of 5G-IoT extend beyond industrial use-cases. The wide coverage, high data rates, enhanced reliability and low latency of 5G-IoT is well suited for the needs of distributed critical infrastructure like the vehicle-to-everything (V2E) systems for connected cars and the growing video surveillance apparatus deployed in smart cities around the world.
While the telecommunications industry is generally upbeat about the potential of 5G IoT, there are some dissenting voices as well. Critics argue that today’s most prevalent IoT applications such as remote monitoring and asset tracking do not need high throughput rates or ultra-low latency. Furthermore, early adopters may opt for private 5G networks, chipping away at the addressable market opportunity for service providers. With the massive investment necessary for 5G spectrum and networks, is being 5G-IoT ready an unnecessary luxury for telecommunication service providers at this point?
In my opinion, besides the benefits of high speed, high performance connectivity, 5G-IoT (and by extension 5G itself) represents a new opportunity for telecommunication service providers to move beyond simply providing connectivity services. As enterprises deploy more and more IoT devices, they will face challenges extracting value from the torrent of data that their devices will collect. By augmenting their core 5G service with edge resources (e.g. micro datacenters), telecommunication service providers can layer new services on top of their connectivity offering to aid customers in deriving value from their data and devices.
For example, machine learning models can automatically trigger alarms and activate security personnel by making inferences based on visual data received by surveillance cameras. These inferences have to be performed near instantaneously and hence the compute resources (e.g edge tensor processing units) that enable these inferences need to be positioned close to the edge (i.e. close to the surveillance cameras). Telecommunication service providers can provide the edge architecture that can house such resources and grant other companies access to this architecture. In fact, the service provider Vodafone and the computing giant IBM have embarked on a venture to precisely that, combining their capabilities in the 5G, IoT, edge computing and AI space to offer these types of services to their customers.
It is through this type of “intelligent connectivity” (coined by the GSMA) that telecommunication service providers will not only enable better connectivity but also help their customers unlock more value from this connectivity, ushering in the age of massive IoT.