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5G alone won't power IoT

While the internet of things has the potential to be transformative across industries, businesses and enterprises share grave concerns about connectivity. In fact, a new Inmarsat report that included 500 senior management respondents from major IT organizations found that 54% said that connectivity is the biggest obstacle in IoT deployment. That’s today, before Gartner’s famous prediction of 20 billion connected devices by 2020 becomes a reality. Ericsson and Cisco go further in their estimates and have each forecasted 50 billion devices in the same timeframe.

It’s also before the nationwide rollout of 5G, which has been misidentified as some sort of connectivity panacea for devices of all types. Sure, 5G connectivity will absolutely provide more speed of data transfer for select devices. It will not, however, be a single source of wireless connectivity for every connected tablet, sensor, car or refrigerator.

There are three key reasons that 5G will not be the sole source of IoT connectivity:

1. Business and connectivity models: Today, companies typically pay a monthly subscription fee for each of the devices that they connect. It seems unlikely that an enterprise can continue this approach with hundreds of thousands or even millions of new devices coming online. Consider a logistics company that places a sensor on each of the million packages it ships every day. That’s potentially millions of new monthly subscriptions paid out to a mobile carrier.

2. Uses of various spectrum: In tandem with the idea of today’s connectivity models, it’s important to consider how connectivity is delivered. The national approach to wireless spectrum grants various companies the ability to use certain swaths of bandwidth. In some cases, other swaths are reserved for specific uses (for example, public safety) and still more bands are set aside as white spaces. This approach aims to ensure that everything that needs to be connected today can be connected; however, scalability could become an issue as the need for more connected devices increases.

For instance, a connected oil pipeline may only need a low-power sensor that identifies whether oil is flowing correctly. The amount of data being transmitted may be very small in this case, whereas its origin may be a remote area with very little connectivity. The oil company would likely want that signal to be transmitted over a very low frequency band because it travels better.

At this time, carriers are testing different spectrum options for 5G applications, from lower bands such as 600 MHz to higher bands such as 2.5 GHz, 3.5 GHz and 5 GHz, both licensed and unlicensed spectrum. Finally, through various acquisitions, some wireless carriers are also exploring even higher spectrum testing in 24 GHz, 28 GHz and 39 GHz bands for 5G. With all of the various spectrum options being tested, the likelihood of “one size fits all” seems remote, and it will take a variety of technologies and devices for a business with different needs to support its IoT needs.

3. Redundancy: It’s critical for a device to have redundant, multiple connections that ensure continuous connectivity. This ranges from airlines having multiple ways to track airplanes, to healthcare companies being able to monitor the signals coming from heart monitors. However, each frequency can require its own antenna, which potentially makes devices bigger, while different frequency bands have their own challenges, such as the inability to penetrate concrete. In these instances, we could be discussing multiple monthly subscription fees for each device. It’s untenable, if not impossible, to fathom.

IoT is coming, and there are companies looking to solve some of the challenges laid out above. But for enterprises hoping for the confluence of high-speed mobile connection provided by 5G and the data created by IoT, it’s important to take a step back and realize that there is a wide range of issues on the horizon as we get closer to 2020.

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