We’ve all heard the mind-stretching IoT statistics by now: 73 billion IoT-connected devices installed by 2025! $1.6 trillion to be spent on purchasing those devices — in 2020 alone! These numbers can be disorienting, but as you might expect, they’re best consumed with a few grains of salt.
Every technology has its strengths and weaknesses, and IoT is no exception. An IoT deployment isn’t for everyone, and for those for whom it is appropriate, adopting the right technology mix is less about trying to surf the huge wave of hype and more about balancing tradeoffs between different options. (I’ve written about making such tradeoffs before).
But even with all these caveats, I’m going to put a small toe in the hype waters and predict that the fifth generation of wireless communication, aka 5G — which brings together a wide range of new wireless technologies into a network of networks — will render a lot of the usual IoT communication tradeoffs obsolete. In fact, I believe 5G, along with other coming cellular technologies, will bring us an entirely new generation of IoT: truly massive IoT. Here’s how.
New technology, new possibilities
Time was that building an IoT system meant balancing performance factors like bandwidth, range and latency against support requirements like power, size and cost: Better performance also meant greater power consumption, size and cost, while low-power communications with small footprints came with severe performance limitations.
But recently introduced cellular technologies, such as LTE-M and Narrowband-IoT (NB-IoT), are offering greater power efficiency at longer ranges than anyone thought possible with cellular, with the added benefits of greater mobility, lower latency and better performance.
Together, these technologies can give IoT users lower costs and more options at the low end of performance, and entirely new capabilities at the high end:
Lower performance = Lower costs + more options
Cellular can now offer a competing option to the handful of communication protocols that previously met the needs of low-power, small-footprint systems, while at the same time driving down costs. Some areas of the world are already seeing 2G components sell for under $2 and NB-IoT for $3, where as recently as 2017 prices in the UK were in the $12-$17 range.
New options = New capabilities
Integrating existing technologies into 5G will bring new capabilities for managing networks at the higher end of the performance spectrum, creating entirely new options for IoT users. For example, many 5G networks can support the formation of mesh networks of smart devices, so individual IoT endpoints don’t need to communicate directly with wireless towers, instead working through other devices that connect to the tower. So now IoT devices in austere environments, like oil rigs or connectivity-challenged places like basements, can tap into high-speed cellular networks, opening up data-hungry use cases like predictive maintenance or AI tools.
More of a good thing
These cellular technologies paving the way to 5G won’t replace existing communications technologies, but augment them by giving IoT devices access to the whole RF spectrum. The result: an IoT that can do more things in more places with more devices.
Up to now, there’ve been few options for users at the low end of the performance spectrum, with low-power wide area networks one of the most common. The addition of a low-power, inexpensive cellular option will likely spur IoT adoption in industries where penetration had been slow. Infrastructure like pipelines or wind turbines in austere environments don’t need to transmit much data, so paying to connect them via cellular coverage — normally expensive in remote locations — hasn’t historically been a great option. And it’s been hard to create wide area networks over the vast landscapes this infrastructure inhabits. But new cellular technologies can break that tradeoff, allowing for cheaper communication with less equipment.
At the high end of the performance spectrum, entirely new use cases are opened up by 5G’s low latency and high-bandwidth connections. Augmented and virtual reality applications — previously dependent on Wi-Fi or wired internet connections — can go mobile, unlocking tremendous new value for IoT users. Consider the construction industry: Every crane you see on the skyline needs a trained operator in the cab, but it can be hard to find qualified candidates in boom times. The low-latency and high-bandwidth aspect of 5G has been used to create “connected cranes” with drivers precisely controlling huge loads from remote sites hundreds of kilometers away.
Connected vehicles provide another use case. Most autonomous vehicle technology today involves sensors feeding data from the environment into the vehicle. This arrangement helps the vehicle navigate its environment, but it’s a one-way street (pun intended) because the car can’t communicate with or influence that environment. But high-speed 5G communication can allow just that, making possible cars that not only drive themselves, but do so in collaboration with their environments — communicating real time with streetlights, parking spaces, even other cars! — fundamentally reshaping how we move around.
Start thinking of use cases today
More devices popping up in existing industries, entirely new devices appearing for the first time — this is how new cellular technologies can help drive massive IoT and make real the jaw-dropping predictions for the future. Here’s one: Some analysts predict that 5G-enabled IoT will funnel 1,000 times more data to mobile networks than before.
That means the time to start thinking about what massive IoT could mean for you is now. What does a massive IoT world — a world with IoT devices in nearly every conceivable location — look like? What might it mean for your business? Will it help you increase operational efficiency? Better connect with customers? Or offer fundamentally new services?
Thinking through these questions today is the key to being ready for massive IoT tomorrow.
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