After years of hype and testing, 5G began major rollouts in 2019. In the UK, all four major wireless carriers (EE, O2, Three and Vodafone) have rolled out 5G networks in London and some additional cities. 2020 looks to be the year where these initial pilots and limited deployments become the new norm.
But what does this mean for the IoT?
First, we have to understand – and not overstate – what 5G actually means for cellular connectivity. Because whilst the faster speed it offers tend to be what people focus on, the truly transformative nature of 5G will lie in its combination of very high speed with very low latency and, ultimately, very broad coverage.
This trio of factors – speed, latency and coverage – mean that the potential for 5G networks to transform the IoT ecosystem is substantial. Think about IoT use cases like smart transport infrastructure, for example. Connected cars have captured people’s imaginations since the early days of the IoT, but they are a delicate use case to get right. Speed and reliability of communications is truly crucial – after all, get a decision wrong, even by just a second, and you could have the difference between free-flowing traffic and a deadly accident. Likewise, connected healthcare use cases, such as smart implanted medical devices which deliver a vital dose of medication or an electric signal to the heart, in the case of pacemakers, rely on absolute speed and reliability of communications.
Speed plus latency means greater bandwidth, which in turn means that 5G networks will be able to transmit data in great volumes, very efficiently. And data, as we know, is at the heart of the IoT – its fuel, its product, its reason for being. Currently, very large and long-range IoT networks tend to focus on transmitting only very small, simple data packets – sensors measuring temperature or humidity levels, for example – but the 5G era could usher in IoT use cases which are able to harness far richer data across far greater areas.
Another key factor to consider is that, unlike earlier generations of wireless communications, 5G has the capability to integrate with newer, advanced technologies such as autonomous robots. Manufacturers will no longer need to juggle between fixed and mobile networks – 5G cellular should be enough to support all of their needs, even when transferring rich data. In turn, this means greater mobility and flexibility. The possibilities for settings such as factory floors and manufacturing businesses, where autonomous, connected robots could potentially move around the environment doing anything from picking and transporting stock, to undertaking sophisticated or fiddly manufacturing tasks, are vast.
For large enterprises, the option of developing a private 5G network, or else working with an existing telecommunications provider to operate a joint one, will be an option. Carriers are getting better and better at working with the private market, and the government too is opening up more 5G spectrum specifically for industry.
Like so many developments in the world of enterprise technology, 5G will not rip and replace everything that has come before. It marks the latest stage in the gradual evolution of mobile connectivity – and the latest stage, too, of IoT ecosystems which are growing in scope and complexity. However, it is certainly clear that 5G will enable IoT networks to capture, transmit and make use of more data, more quickly – and if the last few years have taught us anything, it is that the possibilities from there are truly enormous.