We would like to remind readers that, in all reality, BLE and Wi-Fi will continue to be the wireless connectivity method of choice for most IoT solutions builders and smart connected product OEMs for many years to come.
Sure, 5G will be 10-100 times faster than 4G and offer such low latency that communications are almost real-time. There is a great deal of exciting talk these days about 5G and how it can enable autonomous vehicles, remote medical care, expert surgery from half a world away, or the operation of machinery in hazardous environments. 5G should be able to deliver gigabit residential broadband at a vastly cheaper overall expense than landline operators’ fiber-to-the-home deployment model ever could.
IoT: A Wireless Protocol Soup
However, despite various stop-and-go standards initiatives, the technology state of IOT today is more diverse than ever. This is in part due to the fact that IoT itself is not an industry per se – it’s a megatrend, akin to ‘80s client/server computing or the ‘90s world wide web. No one size fits all, and no one wireless protocol will rule them all. Recently, our friends at IoT Analytics, a European based market research firm, published a forecast report on the LPWAN (Low Power Wide Area Networks) market. What really stood out for us in the forecast was not the expected robust growth in LPWAN and cellular IoT connections globally, but rather how they will be dwarfed by the current deployment (and expected future growth) of BLE and Wi-Fi. In fact, ALL forms of cellular IoT devices — 2G, 3G, 4G and next 5G – will still be dwarfed 5 years from now by the number of things connected by wireless PANs and LANs (mostly, BLE and Wi-Fi).
Different Wireless Tools for Different Jobs
5G will certainly provide more speed of data transfer for select devices and certain use cases, but it will not be the primary wireless connection for most connected devices. No doubt, 5G should create opportunities for new businesses and business models to emerge. But in the meantime, many of today’s IoT business models don’t fit a cellular subscriber-based bandwidth charging model. As a subscriber, would you pay monthly subscriptions to a wireless carrier for every connected device, as is the current 4G model? The IoT wireless protocol soup has emerged over time to address specific and myriad use cases. New protocols add to the broth, but rarely take over the recipe. Developing for IoT requires extensive skills in a variety of technologies, and the rapid growth we have recently seen in IoT is due to the hard work over several years that organizations have put into this mastery. A pivot to an emerging connectivity protocol such as 5G will not be fleet, nor painless.
Having said all that, there is no doubt in our mind that 5G will become a transformative communications technology of the future. In no small part, because – unlike unlicensed technologies that are provided by numerous small vendors in the fragmented landscape – big bets are being made by very large telecommunications service providers. When a Vodafone or Verizon spend billions of dollars acquiring spectrum, they’re going to invest significantly in service development, sales and marketing to generate an ROI. Their shareholders will be watching. You’re betting on a different horse here, than say, a small speciality vendor of ZigBee or Thread-based devices.
Cellular: It Takes Time
So when should we expect 5G to start making its first impact in IoT? Well, don’t hold your breath.
First off, how did we get here?
- 1979 1G: analog voice (no IoT)
- 1991 2G: GPRS, EDGE and 1XRTT: first cellular data options
- 1998 3G: EV-DO and HSPA: faster cellular data
- 2008 4G: LTE: CAT 1: circa 2016, offered data faster than 3G, but with lower power
- 2017 4G LTE CAT M1: slower data, lower power
- 2018 4G LTE NB-IoT: even slower data, even lower power; no roaming
- 2019 5G: ?
A generation of G has come out about every 10 years, with many iterations in between, and it has taken another 10 years or so for the next generation to pass it. We may be talking about another 10 years of 4G for wireless mobile connectivity before 5G surpasses it. IoT-centric 4G standards like CAT M1 and NB-IoT are just now rolling out commercially – 4G LTE is still evolving to better meet the technical features and operational cost that are in the sweet spot for IoT proliferation. The best connectivity options for large numbers of smart, connected devices in the foreseeable future lean heavily toward low-cost and low power short-range networks, often coupled with reliable wide-area networks.
To conclude, 5G could someday be the driver of amazing and life-changing technologies. Doctors may deliver babies-by-wire and it may usher in real-time experiences in augmented reality. But the industry, business and skills transformation required for such a change is in the far-off future. 5G will have to grow up over time to supplant the current cellular alternatives. Meanwhile, low cost Wi-Fi and BLE components will remain at the vanguard of the explosion of IoT devices.