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Should Users Wait for 5G to Implement IIoT Networks?

Dec. 21, 2022
The emergence of 5G cellular networks promises a lot, but it’s still some time away from complete global deployment. While 5G tech offers some exclusive features and benefits, much is already available via existing 4G networks.

This article is part of TechXchange: The Internet of Things (IoT)

What you’ll learn:

  • What are the potential benefits of 5G?
  • What is already possible with LTE?
  • Should you start deployment today, or wait for 5G to fully roll out?

One of the hottest topics these days is the introduction and rollout of 5G technology and the benefits it will bring to the industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

The potential benefits of 5G are widely reported:

  • Higher data throughput
  • Better penetration
  • Low latencies enabling real-time operations
  • Higher mobile-device densities
  • Flexible public/private network space that enable performance-based service-level agreements (SLAs)
  • Low-power transceiver designs for long-term battery-powered devices

What’s less widely discussed, and therefore less widely understood by those considering adoption of 5G, is that these benefits aren’t all available concurrently. Indeed, some are effectively mutually exclusive. This means that while 5G offers many more ways to optimize the characteristics of the communications network to match the requirements of specific application deployments, it’s by no means a panacea for all mobile communication issues.

So, although 5G will undoubtedly be a very significant technology for the future of the IIoT, there are many cases in which existing 4G/LTE-based technology readily meets the application’s needs. Then, there’s the huge additional benefit brought by 4G/LTE being widely and cost effectively available today.

What is 5G?

The latest generation of mobile cellular telephony has a number of differences from its predecessors. Most of the detail changes exist buried deep in the core of the network infrastructure. These pave the way for more flexible radio-access protocols leading to higher mobile device densities, more flexible private-network creation, and more efficient and reliable routing of traffic through the core.

At the cell towers, beamforming technology improves signal quality for any individual user session, and new frequency bands have become available beyond those used in previous generations of cellular equipment. These additional, much-higher-frequency bands enable faster transmission and therefore higher data throughputs coupled to higher device densities. It should be noted, though, that the highest frequency bands are only for applications over relatively short distances.

5G Better for Some

This means that rollout of 5G networks across Europe will bring with it the possibility to address applications that were previously not practical. For example, at the high end of the radio spectrum, the high-bandwidth, low-latency expansion will provide opportunities to expand real-time video-monitoring applications beyond the current physical limitations imposed by the need for fixed wire or Wi-Fi connection.

Yet, in the middle ground, a huge number of use cases need near real-time reporting of a medium volume of data, and here the benefits are less clear. The ability to support more subscribing devices within a particular cell is of value in extremely densely populated urban environments, and the beamforming capability should mean service levels in sparsely populated rural locations are better. However, both of those situations tend to be outliers from the majority of IIoT applications.

Better implicit security exists within the access mechanisms to a 5G network, plus there’s much more flexibility to create and maintain private-access groups to the network Still, other than convenience and perhaps some cost benefit, these achieve little that can’t already be done with LTE in many cases.

The same is true for low-speed, low-power, and high-penetration applications. 5G leverages the NB-IoT technology that’s already available in many LTE deployments. For sure, the vastly improved device densities promised by 5G will enable the coexistence of many installations in non-mission-critical monitoring applications. In turn, that will provide massive volumes of low-level data upon which AI systems can operate.

Such a scenario will undoubtedly bring benefits in smart-city and infrastructure applications, as well as to OEM machine builders keen to add new services to their portfolio. It remains a fundamental truth, though, that this functionality is essentially available via LTE today.

What About Private Networks?

One element of 5G that’s considered a big advantage is the ability to create private mobile networks. While it’s true that the changes in the core of the network will make this easier to accomplish, many potential users fail to realize that it’s perfectly possible to deploy private LTE networks today. Indeed, there are many examples where private LTE networks have been deployed within factories and other environments to create technical and commercial advantages.

So, Should You Wait?

Unless you have an application sitting in one of the categories outlined above, waiting for the relevant 5G service to become available rather than proceeding today using existing LTE networks is very difficult to justify. Time will tell if there’s ultimately a cost advantage to deploying on a 5G network.

However, common sense suggests that, like any new technology, it’s likely to carry a premium in the early days. This will be compounded by the need for the cellular providers to quickly recoup their costs both in acquiring the required radio-spectrum licenses, and in the capital expense associated with the rollout of the new infrastructure needed to support 5G.

Such substantial investments, and the need to maximize early revenues, suggest the initial focus of the cellular operators is likely to be biased toward high-volume, high-bandwidth applications. This means consumer-led video and broadband provision, rather than mainstream machine-to-machine (M2M) projects.

Even when 5G networks become ubiquitous, any investment made in existing LTE solutions will be preserved. The 5G specifications define the use of hybrid networks using 4G radio access networks (RANs) coupled to a 5G core, or vice versa. Indeed, many of the initial implementations have been hybrid in nature, with a focus on improvements to the core network, meaning the wireless technology used in the cell towers is still LTE.

All of this suggests that the sensible strategy for implementing a cellular architecture for an M2M deployment is not to wait. Instead, it’s to analyze the application requirements and segregate those that can only work by leveraging some new feature provided by 5G.

The remainder, which is likely to be most use cases, should be implemented immediately using LTE, safe in the knowledge that the investment is protected. Those parts that need to use 5G should be piloted as soon as the required services are available, with a view to rolling out alongside the existing deployment once they’re proven to be effective.

Read more articles in the TechXchange: The Internet of Things (IoT)

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