5G will transform IoT: Fact or farce?

July 17, 2017

5G will transform IoT: Fact or farce?

The first time I remember hearing about the impact of 5G on the Internet of Things (IoT) was a few years ago at CES 2015. I don't remember the name of...


The first time I remember hearing about the impact of 5G on the Internet of Things (IoT) was a few years ago at CES 2015. I don’t remember the name of the session or the panelists involved, but I do recall that communications service providers (CSPs) were well represented and that the general thrust was this: Ubiquitous 5G networks will solve the coverage, bandwidth, and latency demands of omnipresent IoT deployments.

At that time, of course, the term “5G” meant little more than “the 3GPP network that will eventually replace 4G.” Significant beamforming, power consumption, and general architecture hurdles still lay ahead of the standard, but what had been promised was up to 10 Gbps data transfer speeds to end points, one millisecond round trip latencies, up to 10 years of battery life for remote devices, and improved indoor device coverage[1]. Count me in.

But could we be getting ahead of ourselves? The flashy neon of IoT combined with the glitter of 5G seems too much a marketer’s daydream not to warrant a closer look.

IoT networks, know thy roots

Just last year, North American carriers created quite a stir when they began shutting down 2G networks, which had served as the backbone of machine-to-machine (M2M) communications for years. A logical progression would have been for devices on 2G networks to simply transition to 4G connectivity; instead we have seen the emergence of low-power wide-area networks (LPWANs) such as LoRa, Sigfox, and other sub-GHz technologies.

What makes LPWANs more attractive than 4G for IoT devices is low relative chipset costs and minimal power consumption over great distances. Unfortunately for 5G, these are still two issues that need to be addressed:

  • Although 5G pilots will begin next year, practical implementations aren’t expected until the 2020 timeframe. As a result, it’s unlikely that 5G chipset volumes will reach levels that are price competitive any time in the foreseeable future.
  • The most popular methods for increasing transmission capacity on 5G networks include reducing the coverage area of network base stations or utilizing millimeter waves that can exploit several GHz of spectrum[2]. Each solution requires that wireless access points be positioned within a few hundred or a few dozen meters of each other, which isn’t an issue in highly concentrated urban areas but is a significant one in low and medium density regions.

At least for the Industrial IoT, both of these indicators appear to be moving in the wrong direction.

5G will transform IoT: Fact or farce?

In fairness, 5G is first and foremost a means of solving the bandwidth and latency shortcomings of 3G and 4G networks for applications like video streaming, with IoT sensor connections really just icing on the cake.

“Whether people like it or not, the first business case of 5G is a successor of 4G,” says Cees Links, General Manager of the Low Power Wireless business unit at radio frequency semiconductor company Qorvo, Inc. (www.qorvo.com), whose filters and amplifiers enable the multiphase array antennas used in 5G pilots such as the PyeongChang Olympics. “IoT and 5G are married together because they are happening at the same time. Personally I believe that they have very little to do with each other for the simple reason that 5G is all about performance.”

According to Links, the limited range of 5G networks already has “people talking about combinations of 4G and 5G” to offset the expense of building more cell towers. While this makes adopting Category-M1 and NB-IoT solutions a smart choice for device manufacturers looking to future proof their LTE investments, it also suggests that 5G will be just another IoT networking option until the technology matures.

“IoT will dovetail on the back of 5G and no one will notice,” says Links. “IoT doesn’t need 5G. The IoT could run on 2G just fine.”

So, will 5G transform IoT? For now, the verdict: farce.

1. Mercer, Christina. “What is 5G? Everything you need to know about 5G.” Techworld. June 14, 2017. Accessed July 16, 2017. http://www.techworld.com/apps-wearables/what-is-5g-everything-you-need-know-about-5g-3634921/.

2. “Fujitsu Develops Low Power Consumption Technology for 5G.” Fujitsu Develops Low Power Consumption Technology for 5G – Fujitsu Global. Accessed July 16, 2017. http://www.fujitsu.com/global/about/resources/news/press-releases/2016/0906-01.html.


Brandon Lewis, Technology Editor