Will 5G be an Enabler for IoT?

Andy Slote - Director of Customer Success for ObjectSpectrum

September 1, 2020

By now, you may have heard about the advancements 5G wireless service is promising. Marketed as a significant leap forward in wireless technology, it should be a considerable improvement for mobile phone users. With the optimal spectrum, its performance could make it competitive with wired Internet offerings like FTTP and Cable Internet.

But what does it offer for the Internet of Things? Some of the headlines make it seem like a game-changer here, as well, but the IoT benefits for some use cases may be less clear and compelling.     

Regarding data rates (“speeds”), 5G will be faster than any previous cellular technology, with the highest speed projections exceeding 10 Gbps. However, this level of performance is only achievable in the high-frequency spectrum above 24 GHz, known as “millimeter wave.” Characteristics of wireless communication in this high-band spectrum include short range and limited ability to penetrate obstructions (buildings, trees, etc.). 5G will use “mid-band” and “low-band” spectrum, as well, where speeds will be lower than millimeter wave but still project to be faster than 4G. Range and penetration for mid-band 5G will be better than millimeter wave, with low-band delivering the best performance in both of these aspects.

Many IoT use cases don’t require high bandwidth, so this promise will not make a significant difference in the proliferation or effectiveness of a large percentage of solutions. Sure, video-intensive applications will be further enabled, but there is a slew of others that, by design, only use small data packets.

Another 5G benefit is latency less than 1ms (vs. approximately 30ms for 4G) from a device to the base station and back. Any additional latency beyond the base station (to and from the cloud, for example) would, of course, be the same. If an IoT application requires the lowest achievable latency, adding an “edge computing” component to process sensor data is a potential solution. Typically accomplished by putting computing capability “local” to a 5G base station or, when practical, internal to an IoT device, processing data “at the edge” is being touted as an essential component of low latency 5G IoT implementations.

5G networks provide some other advantages for connected devices, which should provide some indirect benefits for the Internet of Things, including:

  • “Beam Forming” described as a way to direct 5G signals in a specific direction, potentially giving a device a more specialized connection
  • A technology called “Network Slicing” providing the ability to carve out individual slivers of spectrum to offer specific IoT devices lower-power, slower connections while delivering faster, lower-latency ones to mobile phones, connected cars, etc
  • Network device capacity increases of 10 to 100 times greater than current cellular networks
  • Unmatched reliability
  • Improved security

At the highest level, 5G is an entirely new network architecture, enabling lower cost, faster deployment, and expanded coverage for all services, including IoT. It is one of many network technologies helping IoT become ubiquitous.