Go to almost any telecoms industry conference these days, and you’ll hear about at least two things: the internet of things (IoT) and 5G. And while there is interest in both, operator delegates tend to be more interested in the IoT.
As one delegate from an emerging market operator said to me over coffee: “5G is interesting, but it’s too far off - it’s five years away for Japan, and even further than that for my own country. I’d rather hear more about the IoT because that’s happening now, not ten years from now.”
That’s not a surprising comment given how nebulous the term “5G” is at the moment. It’s not a straightforward generational cellular network upgrade, and there’s no industry consensus on the exact details of what counts as 5G - apart from the high-concept vision of unlimited access to information and the ability to share data anywhere, anytime, by anyone and anything. But the exact performance levels and requirements of 5G have yet to be defined, and standards work won’t start for another year, although as we went to press, the ITU has reportedly settled on a few key benchmarks (see sidebar “Set the controls for IMT-2020”).
Compare that to the IoT, which is indeed already happening, although it’s early days. Statistics vary, but according to an Intel infographic, there will be 15 billion “things” connected to the internet this year. That will grow to 200 billion by 2020.
But for all the interest in the development of the IoT over the next five to ten years, it won’t be a separate development from the emergence of 5G, says Nils Kleemann, head of Mobile Broadband Asia Pacific for Nokia Networks.
“When you look at the requirements of the IoT - where you’re going to have 100 times more devices connected and 10,000 times more traffic, and with some of those machine-type communications critical enough that latency must be under a millisecond, and the bandwidth required to support all that, where you’d need anywhere from 100 Mbps to 10 Gbps or more - all of this will drive us towards 5G, because 4G networks won’t be able to deliver it,” Kleeman says.
Stephen Hire, Asia Pacific VP at Cobham Wireless, agrees. “5G is widely expected to be defined in part by expanded M2M communications and to be a key enabler of many new IoT applications. 5G will make possible innovative use cases, some of which may not even have been thought of yet.”
Put simply, if you want to plot a roadmap for 5G, just look at the roadmap for the IoT, because it’s essentially the same road to the same destination.
This becomes clear when you look more closely at the overarching vision of the IoT (i.e. anything that can be connected will be connected - from appliances and sensors to cars and clothing - to the point where communications becomes an environment powered by algorithms and predictive analytics) and the requirements this will place on telecoms networks.
According to Kleeman at Nokia, the myriad network requirements to support the IoT can be sorted into three main categories: the ability to support massive data consumption, the huge number of sensors and connected devices driving that consumption, and the low latencies needed for critical real-time apps like autonomous connected cars, for example.