MWC2017: IoT has no compelling need for 5G

Michele Mackenzie & Tom Rebbeck / Analysys Mason
23 Mar 2017

New topics, such as virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI), have gained traction in the past couple of years at MWC, but IoT continues to be a key theme of the industry’s annual get together. In this article, we explore some of the IoT developments from the 2017 event.

LTE-M gained prominence, raising questions about NB-IoT

At MWC, nine big operator groups issued a statement backing LTE-M, including AT&T, Orange, NTT Docomo and Verizon. These operators argue that LTE-M is a better compromise between performance and price than the competing NB-IoT solution. LTE-M can handle up to 1Mbps and carry voice, and yet the modules are only about 10% more expensive and are only slightly less energy efficient than NB-IoT units.

This support for LTE-M contrasts with the position taken by other big operators, including Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone, which are backing NB-IoT. It is possible that Europe may have a patchwork of coverage – some countries will only have NB-IoT, some only LTE-M, some both. In the USA, both AT&T and Verizon have elected to build LTE-M networks. The situation in China is less clear. China Mobile is known to be interested in deploying LTE-M and all three mobile network operators (MNOs) have NB-IoT trials.

This fragmentation is likely to create uncertainty. A firm that wanted to add connectivity to its device would struggle to choose a technology. It could simply add both – Qualcomm and others have modules that offer NB-IoT and LTE-M connectivity – but this adds complexity and cost; exactly what the industry wants to avoid with solutions for IoT.

This fragmentation is likely to be resolved in time, probably the next year or two, with one of the standards prevailing. The final investment decisions of the Chinese operators may be key here. However, whatever happens we are not looking at a GSM-vs-CDMA type split. Both NB-IoT and LTE-M are (relatively simple) software upgrades to an existing LTE network; an operator could conceivably offer both simultaneously.

This fragmentation with the 3GPP standards creates more opportunity at the low end of the market for technologies like Sigfox and LoRa, both of which were demonstrating new geolocation features at the show. As the 3GPP standards fight for primacy, the unlicensed technologies continue to make progress.

IoT applications are not supporting the business case for 5G

The second theme of interest at MWC was IoT applications using 5G (or rather, the lack of them). Massive connectivity for IoT is one of the three or four main application groups that are supporting the argument for 5G, but examples that will generate significant revenue were difficult to find.

The most commonly cited IoT application is the use of 5G for vehicle-to-vehicle or vehicle-to-infrastructure communications (V2X) that would benefit from lower latency. Countering this was a demonstration from Nokia of vehicle platooning that compared LTE-based V2X (i.e. 4G) with dedicated short-range communications (DSRC). Nokia said that it was yet to find any vehicle platooning use cases that needed 5G. Qualcomm told a similar story; its stand included no examples of IoT applications based on 5G.

For operators, this means that almost all the uses cases for IoT that can be thought up can use a variant of 4G (or even something simpler) without needing major network investment. However, it also means that any business case for 5G investment cannot rely on IoT. 5G-based IoT applications may emerge, but they are not in evidence yet.

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