The journey to 5G for IoT

Over the last few years 5G has been rapidly deployed in many markets across the world. At the same time, handsets capable of 5G have become increasingly affordable so that mobile broadband users can start to gain benefits of 5G where available. From an IoT application perspective the situation is somewhat different, says Martin Whitlock, chief technology officer at Telenor Connexion, Telenor IoT.

For example, continuous network access is required for many IoT use cases, meaning the application needs to optimise for networks with sufficient coverage. Application and device lifecycles are much longer than for consumer applications and handsets, so to avoid costly application redesigns or hardware replacements, architecture design and technology choices often need to be made with a 10-year horizon or more. Device design constraints are different from handset in other aspects as well, for example, cost and energy consumption requirements are often more stringent.

For IoT applications it is therefore important to think ahead. The choices made today will impact the capabilities and cost of the connected solution for many years to come.

Looking ahead the importance of proactive preparation

The introduction of 5G is going to be over a 10+ year period. Each network generation is carefully standardised to ensure global interoperability. The regulator in each country plans the use of spectrum and awards licenses to use the spectrum. Communication service providers must secure spectrum licenses, conduct roll outs, and operate the new network. Rolling out a new national mobile network is a lengthy process, and it can take years before a new network generation achieves the same coverage as the network generations preceding it.

For IoT applications this transition phase lasts until the new network technology provides sufficient coverage to remove dependency on legacy networks. For international IoT applications this phase lasts until all the countries that the application spans have sufficient coverage, and it is possible to access the needed network and functionality cross boarders in an efficient way.

For 5G, the coverage profile and roll-out time will vary considerably for different use cases. For example, massive mobile IoT capabilities like LTE-M and NB-IoT are optimised for wide area coverage and have initiated rollouts already on top of existing 4G networks.

Another important consideration for IoT applications is the sunset of earlier mobile network generations. With the deployment of 4G and 5G networks, regulators and communication service providers across the globe are sunsetting 2G and 3G legacy networks to reuse valuable spectrum for the new and more efficient technologies.

2G/3G sunsets are already in execution in markets like the USA and Australia. For Europe 2G sunsets are, in general, planned for the end of 2025. This is especially crucial for IoT applications that in many countries still rely on superior 2G coverage and with the long IoT device cycles there are also still a substantial number of IoT devices that are 2G only and need to be upgrade to ensure continued operation.

During this phase, the IoT application needs to rely on multiple generations of networks to achieve sufficient coverage. This implies a cost in the device that needs more complex communication hardware than if single-mode hardware could be used. It also means the application cannot take full benefit of new network capabilities.

Below we have listed some practical considerations for enterprises designing or operating IoT applications during this phase.

  1. Hardware The market is in very rapid development and using sufficiently futureproofed hardware you improve your chances of benefiting from future technical development. From a communication perspective this often means using multi-mode hardware. For many IoT applications and especially international ones, LTE-M is preferred over NB-IoT as it offers better support for software upgrades and international roaming.
  • Base review: After more than 30 years of commercial use, 2G or GSM (Global System for Mobile) is approaching end-of-life in many parts of the world. With the long IoT device life cycles there are still considerable volumes of 2G only devices in operation. The right strategy and execution plan is crucial to secure reliable performance in a cost efficient transition.
  • Long term considerations: For new IoT applications and when hardware is upgraded it is a good time to set and execute a longer-term technology and operating model strategy, e.g., is this the time to shift to a public cloud based IoT platform based application that will allow easier access to advanced 5G capabilities over time? For which part of the IoT application do you want to focus your digital expertise and which parts would you like to outsource?
Martin Whitlock

5G and 4G will both be available for the foreseeable future. 2G has been in commercial operation for more than 30 years and 4G/5G is likely to operate for at least as long. 5G has been architected from its initial design to co-exist with 4G technology. For enterprises this means that both 5G and 4G will be available for a long time. Mobile IoT and Dynamic Spectrum Sharing are two examples of this co-existence.

The Mobile IoT technologies LTE-M and NB-IoT were designed for 5G but rolled forward to work in 4G. LTE-M and NB-IoT were designed for efficiency for devices that use less data like sensors installed in buildings, and is suited for devices that have modest data requirements, but need a long battery life and comprehensive coverage.

Dynamic Spectrum Sharing Enables Connectivity Service Providers to serve 4G and 5G devices in the same radio frequencies.

The author is Martin Whitlock, chief technology officer at Telenor Connexion, Telenor IoT.

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