Over the last few years, two acronyms that offer a vision of the future have become ubiquitous across the technology and communications industries: IoT and 5G. IoT is a broad term describing a future in which much of the electronic communications will be between autonomous devices. 5G is the fifth generation of mobile wireless. Let’s look at how the 5G radio access network (RAN) will support IoT.
IoT envisions communications between billions of devices. Although previous generations of mobile technology have provided some capability for machine-type communications, like meter reading and asset monitoring, these capabilities have either been designed as “over the top” custom applications or they have been built into 4G standards as an afterthought — think Narrowband-IoT and LTE-M, for example. 5G is the first standard to support machine communications from the beginning; the standard supports massive machine-type communications and ensures that the RAN will meet these needs.
Beyond changes to the standard, however, serving broad-based IoT requirements leads to additional considerations when designing the 5G RAN. Users will have high expectations that there will be sufficient coverage to deliver service to IoT devices anywhere they are installed, whether inside buildings or in the outside environment.
5G networks are being designed around three core application models:
- Speed — Enhanced mobility broadband
- IoT — Mass device deployments
- Ultra-low latency applications
How does the 5G RAN meet these challenges?
5G networks are being designed to be almost 10 times faster than 4G technology, so they support a far wider range of applications.
5G supports 10 times as many connections per square kilometer, which is important because there will be billions of IoT devices to connect. Support for more connections translates to less equipment in the network, smoother deployments and faster deployment times.
In addition, the 5G RAN will extend to both indoor and outdoor radio sites. We will need coverage in buildings and factories, so there will be a mix of indoor and outdoor network equipment. In-building wireless, including small cells and distributed antenna systems, will drive RAN signals into buildings, while outdoor applications will be supported with everything from macro cell towers to small cells.
Support of services that require low or ultra-low latency can be achieved by optimizing the location/distribution of the baseband processing elements in the radio access network. This is supported within 5G standards by moving time-sensitive elements of baseband processing closer to the network edge.
In 5G, the baseband elements are broken down into a centralized unit (CU) for the non-real-time functions and a distributed unit (DU) for the real-time functions. To achieve minimum latency in the network, the DU and/or the CU are moved close to the network edge, typically to the radio access node or to a hub location.
Another major change in 5G architecture is the amount of virtualization in the RAN. A lot of the traditional centralized components will become virtualized and run on server platforms, which is ideal for IoT because it provides a common data center architecture that houses both data center resources and a piece of the RAN.
Look back on how computer virtualization changed IT architecture a decade ago by using underutilized compute resources among multiple devices. We are seeing the same shift in the RAN network, where a baseband unit’s capabilities are being shared between multiple cell sites.
Virtualized RAN components will be less expensive because they run as software on standard servers rather than the proprietary, hardware-specific devices used in the past. There will be variations depending on what the IoT network is trying to do; for example, low-latency applications will require that some of the RAN components are located closer to the end devices. Remote surgery and autonomous driving are use cases.
So, in terms of raw capabilities in the standard, a denser network and virtualization, the 5G RAN will support IoT applications with higher speeds, lower latency and greater reach. 5G will be the first cellular standard that satisfies IoT’s huge demands for connectivity.
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