IoT Devices in a 5G World
February 11, 2021
Although IoT devices are seemingly everywhere right now, 5G will ensure they are truly ubiquitous.
This doesn’t just mean smart phones though. It includes everything from constrained IoT devices like sensors and actuators monitoring smart building lights and doors, to manufacturing automation and autonomous vehicles adroitly delivering your online purchases. The promise of 5G to deliver high speed, huge capacity, and low latency will soon mean that virtually everything, everywhere will be connected in some way.
The technological developments that 5G enables is staggering. Imagine smart cities that can monitor utility meters remotely or schedule waste pick up based on need rather than weekly schedules; green-space urban lighting that dims or turns off when no one is there, saving thousands of dollars in electrical costs, or traffic lights that can reduce congestion by communicating as a network. Rural communities will benefit too, enabling remote robotic surgeries in areas where surgeons are unable to perform procedures in person.
The Principles of 5G
The guiding principles behind the 5G rollout have been shaped by the brightest minds in the telecommunications and IoT industries as well as a collective of well-known organizations such as TSG, IEEE, GSMA, ITU, and CBRS. By far though, the most prominent group organizing and translating ideas into standards has been 3GPP, whose specifications are the worldwide, gold standard for 5G architecture and implementation.
3GPP’s groundbreaking research study on new services and market technology enablers, also known as SMARTER, recognized the heterogeneity of the networks. They aggregated all the potential use cases into one study for review and evaluation, initially identifying 70 potential use cases for the new technology. By grouping the varied use cases into similar categories with common capabilities, they were eventually able to define three broad categories that today comprise the essential types of 5G; eMBB, mMTC, and URLLC.
- Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB) delivers enhanced connectivity, higher capacity, and higher user mobility. It helps users experience immersive video conferencing, get fast video downloads, and enables augmented reality – anywhere on the go. It was one of the first capabilities to be rolled out, and luckily, it has allowed knowledge workers to work from home with little interruption to business operations at a time when it was critically needed.
- Massive Machine Type Communications (mMTC) is where low-complexity, low-energy types of devices such as sensors communicate. What they don’t use in energy or capacity they make up for in density. mMTC can accommodate up to 1 million nodes per square kilometer making it perfect for smart cities with lots of sensors communicating over NB-IoT, LTE-M, or low-power wide-area (LPWA) networks.
- Ultra-Reliability, Low-Latency Communications (URLLC) supports mission critical infrastructures that require high availability (greater than 99.999% or “five nines), low latency (1 ms) and high mobility. This use case demands a high quality of service (QoS) that the others don’t. Communication here must be precise since it is used for things like vehicular IoT and robotic surgery mentioned above.
Migrating from 4G to 5G
As mobile network operators upgrade from 4G to 5G they’re addressing three main areas: Spectrum, Radio Access Network (RAN), and Cellular Access Network (more commonly known as Mobile Core). Many companies are spending billions of dollars to secure prized, licensed radio frequencies in the lower sub-6 GHz and upper millimeter-wave (mmWave) range of 24.25 GHz and higher. Others are relying on mid-range, lightly-licensed or shared spectrum like Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) for the development of private networks.
RANs include the base stations and the backhauls that connect base stations to each other and to the Mobile Core. New antennas enable multiple-input and multiple-output (MIMO) that multiply base station capacity. The addition of more densely positioned macro base stations supplemented by small cells and even street level mesh systems are growing capacity to meet expected demand.
The new Mobile Core architecture signals a noticeable shift from 4G to 5G and is where certificate-based authentication protocols of public key infrastructure (PKI) are an ideal fit. In addition to other enhancements, 5G now allows for alternative device-identity authentication methods other than tradition SIM cards commonly found in smart phones. Because IoT devices operate in a much different way than smart phones, and typically don’t use SIM cards, they need an authentication methodology that better addresses their needs. The most commonly adopted methodology, especially for secure IoT device authentication is PKI.
PKI enables IoT Security in 5G
With hundreds of thousands of IoT devices expected to enter the market and connect to IoT networks, PKI is uniquely positioned to handle device authentication, data integrity and privacy at scale. This is especially true for private cellular networks made possible by 5G ‘slicing’. Private networks or what 3GPP calls “non-public networks” enable multiplexing where independent networks can share the same physical network infrastructure and cellular spectrum range while remaining securely separate and apart from other networks. As “things” like connected manufacturing and even more importantly critical infrastructures such as smart cities or power plants capitalize on 5G capabilities, private cellular networks secured with strong, unique device identities managed through a PKI specifically designed for IoT, promise the best fit.
5G leans heavily on cloud technology, especially the Mobile Core, whose design is based on the use of web services that are typically secured by PKI certificates. As networks engage more with these cloud-based micro-services, the use of PKI to secure it will also grow, further cementing its place as the preferred IoT security mechanism. To ease IoT device enrollment to cloud-based services, global certificate authorities like GlobalSign are partnering with leading cloud services such as Microsoft’s Azure IoT Hub and AWS IoT Core to pave the way for low/zero-touch cloud enrollment by integrating their technologies as a cooperative solution. Given the complex nature of 5G, the ease of IoT device enrollment is seen as a boon to IoT device manufacturers, private network operators, and mobile network operators alike, eager to streamline their network rollouts.
There is no doubt that 5G will enhance user phone, web and video experiences. Arguably though, 5G’s greatest impact and contribution will be its unique ability to enable the IoT in ways we could never imagine. IoT devices will not only exist in a 5G world, they will dominate it.