5G, the fifth generation of cellular wireless technologies, is on the way. Having become one of the most discussed topics in global news, with conspiracy theorists linking it to the spread of COVID-19 and with political implications over who supplies the network infrastructure, it has a lot of attention.
However, much of 5G’s coverage (at least in recent times) has neglected to explore what the impact will be on the Internet of Things (IoT). Carriers have instead focused on emerging market opportunities (VR, V2X, UHD streaming), in efforts to engage investors and prospective customers. But what does it mean for IoT companies? What are the benefits of 5G for devices that don’t require such high data transmission rates?
Will IoT devices grow larger?
Miniaturisation efforts have undoubtedly made wireless technology smaller and smaller. Circuit boards are compact: featuring more components and integrated circuits within an even smaller place. Innovations from component manufacturers and the increasingly sophisticated use of smart materials are enabling and accelerating this trend.
5G will change this. The very nature of the higher bands used for 5G frequencies necessitate physical changes to antennas. The size and shape of antennas need to obey the laws of physics to product transmissions and receive signals at predetermined frequencies. The larger the wavelength; the bigger the antenna.
Further to this, ‘true’ 5G requires a device to have multiple antenna arrays on board. Multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) can significantly boost data transmission rates, however, it comes at the expense of real estate on a circuit board.
These two factors in combination mean more space is required to house antennas and to provide each one with sufficient ground plane space to operate efficiently. Without an efficient design, networks will reject devices that fail to meet their standards. These standards vary, with some more stringent than others.
The benefits of 5G for IoT
While IoT devices are not those that will benefit most from the ultra-high data rates promised through 5G, they will benefit from the technology in other ways.
‘Ultra-reliability’ is one of the buzzwords often associated with 5G. Marketing literature promises close to 100% up-time on industrial machinery. In prospect, 5G offers an infrastructure featuring a flexible frame structure that provides options for carriers to solidify their network foundation.
The 3GPP specification in Release 15 refers to reference signals, used to improve synchronisation and thus reducing packet loss, all while improving demodulation efficiency. These will result in a much more reliable network for IoT devices, which will help increase their uptake and thus the value they offer to consumers.
The plethora of wireless technologies available is causing congestion in cellular frequency bands – especially on the sub-6GHz bands. To combat this, 5G is using the unused millimetre wave (mmWave) spectrum. The mmWave spectrum ranges from 6 to 300GHz, which can cope with the significant data requirements of some of 5G’s new applications, like virtual realities and 4K video streaming. For the IoT, there’s an alternative benefit to 5G’s new propagation standards.
As part of the 5G standard, the 3.5GHz frequency band was opened up in North America to operate as a ‘stepping stone’ for 5G. The band was previously reserved for US Naval usage, but this particular part of the spectrum will enable signals to propagate further and deeper within buildings.
Beamforming is another technique used in 5G networks to boost the depth and distance of propagation. Base stations for 5G feature hundreds of antennas (Massive MIMO), which can be directionally controlled to boost performance in a particular location. This is a huge boost for devices in congested environments with lots of connected devices. For IoT devices, which are often situated in environments containing other connected devices, this promises to boost reception/signal strength.
Narrowband-IoT is very much part of the 5G wireless standard. We’ve looked at the benefits of Narrowband in previous articles, but there are some novel changes which make the Narrowband technology an ever-more inviting proposition for IoT devices.
Devices that require multi-year battery lives may be served well by Narrowband-IoT. The technology uses existing LTE technologies to deliver highly efficient data transfer, with deep coverage and high security. In some scenarios, it can operate on just 200 kHz of bandwidth, which aids in its capacity to serve high volumes of connected devices. It’s useful for trackers, water monitors and other smart city applications.
LTE-M, on the other hand, uses more bandwidth than Narrowband-IoT. It’s not quite as efficient and causes devices to deplete their batteries quicker. What it does offer, however, is more bandwidth, which can be useful in more talkative applications, or where greater volumes of data can be transferred. Devices with control functions or sophisticated sensors may be better suited to LTE-M.
Broadening the coverage of cellular networks yields huge benefits. It means that remote monitoring can begin to help clean up the environment, use energy more efficiently and bring the value of data to a whole range of industries.
mmWave 5G signals are much more prone to interference than 4G signals, which results from their weaker propagation. To combat this, the infrastructure and locations of base stations are going to have to change. Cities will need far more stations to provide coverage of mmWave 5G. Without more stations, the signal penetration can be compromised, with it requiring a line of sight to provide devices with coverage.
This new infrastructure does bring new benefits to the IoT – supporting a ‘massive’ volume of devices, all with unique connectivity requirements. Narrowband-IoT is purported to reach up to 10km in rural areas.
The right technology?
Between 5G, LTE-M and NB-IoT, there is now much more choice for IoT designers and engineers. Selecting the right technology for the application at hand is essential to maximise the wireless performance of the device. The most talkative devices with the largest data requirements will benefit from mmWave 5G, whereas low volume communicators may be better served through NB-IoT.
From a design perspective, each technology brings in a unique set of challenges. As cellular technologies, they do all require devices to pass network approval before they can launch to market. This means that an efficient, high-performance wireless design is crucial to launch.
At Antenova, we’re able to support our customers with design tools, in-depth content and consultative support for our customers. For more information, simply get in touch with us and we’ll put you in touch with a representative from your part of the world.