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Will 5G be a miracle worker for IoT connectivity?

(Image credit: Image Credit: Flex)

With 5G rearing its head and the Internet of Things going from strength-to-strength, everything in the world is becoming connected. Thanks to 5G, in the not too distant future, high-speed connectivity will be available for all… except where it isn’t.

A 5G IoT utopia

5G promises mobile communications with speeds equalling, and in many cases, surpassing those achieved by home broadband. As well as the obvious benefits for mobile users, high-speed connectivity and increased availability will also benefit the IoT, allowing more devices to send and receive more data.

While this sounds like a data utopia, 5G may not have all the answers where the IoT is concerned. For example, what about connectivity between cities and across borders? In this article, we look at what’s needed for truly ubiquitous global IoT coverage and filling the gaps between coverage hotspots.

Smart cities and connectivity bubbles

The need for 5G is largely driven by the move towards smart cities. In a truly smart city, all things are connected. This means cars will have an intelligent dialogue with traffic systems, home appliances will communicate with utility suppliers, garbage trucks will communicate directly with waste bins and so on. In order for this to happen, a lot of bandwidth needs to be made available, which is where 5G comes in. Offering a theoretical download speed of 10,000 Mbps as well as ultra-low latency, 5G has everything a smart city needs in terms of connectivity.

It would appear that for all of the reasons above, 5G has the Internet of Things sewn up, and for those within the urban sprawl, to some degree, it does. However, for those operating outside the urban bubble, across borders or in territories where 3G is still yet to be properly implemented, it’s not so simple. For much of the world, 5G will be out of reach for several years.

Don’t carry all your IoT eggs in one basket

In terms of connectivity, given the pace of change in the industry, carrying all of your eggs in one basket could be incredibly short-sighted. Simply put: if your IoT solution relies on only one method of connectivity, it will only work in places where that connectivity exists. In the short-term, 5G connectivity will fit into the same category as LoRa and SigFox – i.e. connectivity will only exist in bubbles. If your devices need to operate outside of the bubble they will need another connectivity option.

Outside the connectivity bubble

For businesses that need to operate outside of a connectivity bubble, other options have to be considered. The most common option for operating outside these bubbles is 4G/LTE. With a roaming data agreement, devices will still be able to operate outside the limitations of a 5G, SigFox or LoRa network. Many network operators are able to offer international roaming data contacts that will allow a device to operate in several different countries, however, this comes with a significant and sometimes unpredictable cost and may still not have quite the coverage needed by the business.

4G/LTE coverage is patchy at best when you look at the global picture. Many countries have not yet upgraded and some don’t even have it on their radar at all yet. Even in developed countries like the UK, 4G is still very shaky once you get outside the big towns and cities. Combine the lack of ubiquitous 4G coverage with potentially high data costs and it soon becomes clear that a 5G/4G-based IoT network isn’t suitable for all – especially businesses that operate in remote locations or across borders.

Talk is cheap, so let’s use voice

Don’t rely on the TCP/IP layer of the mobile network - instead, allow devices to send and receive messages using the voice-based GSM (2G) network. The big advantage of using 2G is the coverage. 2G is available in over 190 countries worldwide and in most cases runs alongside 3G and 4G communications. Where countries have not yet upgraded to 3G or 4G, 2G is usually widely supported by multiple carriers.

Nothing lasts forever – especially not 2G

The problem with using what is essentially old technology is that it won’t be around forever and that is true of 2G. In countries where full coverage is offered by 4G/5G, 2G is being switched off… eventually. For IoT deployments relying only on 2G, this will cause problems in the future. How far into the future we need to look depends on the territory in question. For example, South Korea has already shut down 2G but there are still third-world countries yet to see a full 3G rollout, let alone full 4G/5G implementation. For these countries, 5G could be as much as ten years or more away.

Even countries with good 4G coverage may be a while away from switching off 2G altogether. In countries where mobile rollout has been slow, innovators have had no choice but to use the older technologies. For example, in many African countries, the use of USSD shortcodes (a text-based messaging component of 2G) has become commonplace for allowing feature phone users access to websites and applications. For this reason, 2G will remain a very cost-effective option for some time.

Low-power is essential in the dark

All IoT devices require power to operate. If your device isn’t inside a connectivity bubble, there’s a good chance that it will need to operate without a power supply, relying on batteries to take the strain. Simply choosing bigger batteries isn’t the answer. The cost of charging hundreds or even thousands of devices soon adds up and the batteries themselves can also add a significant cost to a device.

For the reasons above, it’s important that IoT devices draw as little power as possible in order to ensure continuous operation between the bubbles.

Finding the right connectivity solution for IoT deployments is essential and a big part of that is WHERE it needs to work. 5G may not have the answer yet and it may never achieve ubiquity but for those that need low-power, low-cost IoT that works in remote areas or across borders, there are other options available right now.

Lee Stacey, Product Evangelist, Thingstream
Image Credit: Flex