With recent demonstrations of 5G having taken place as recently as the Olympic Winter Games and Superbowl LII, interest in this new wireless networking technology is growing. Some cellular network providers are even planning to begin rolling out new 5G in select cities as soon as late 2018 which may include LTE-M & NB-IoT networks. However, a great deal of confusion remains regarding 5G and how businesses can leverage 5G in their IoT strategies.
For example, many enterprises believe that 5G-based networks, when they are eventually widely deployed, will revolutionize wireless data communications. And it is true that 5G’s super high data rates and ultra-low latency will enable the development of completely new types of video and other high-bandwidth applications. However, enterprises developing agriculture, smart city, supply chain, healthcare, industrial, transportation, energy and other IoT applications need to read beyond the headlines if they hope to fully understand 5G’s impact on their IoT strategies. Upon looking closer, they are likely to find that the IoT technology they actually need to develop and deploy these applications is already available with today’s NB-IoT and LTE-M Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) networks. LPWA delivers the key four C’s for IoT applications (low-cost, low-current, wide coverage, and high capacity) that enables them to embed Internet-connected modules and other IoT edge devices into infrastructure (pipelines, smart meters, street lighting), supply-chain (package tracking, inventory tracking) or other mobile assets (patient monitoring devices, dog collars, shipping containers), and various other “things.”
5G Incorporates NB-IoT and LTE-M
Most people know NB-IoT and LTE-M as a 4G technology, but they also play a vital role in a 5G system to support 5G LPWA use cases. The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), the standards group specifying 5G and other wireless networking standards, has indicated LTE-M and NB-IoT will be part of 5G and are the only 5G technology to support 5G LPWA use cases in the foreseeable future.
3GPP has indicated to the International Telecom Union (ITU) that it will submit both NB-IoT and LTE-M technologies as candidates to meet the 5G LPWA requirements outlined in IMT-2020 – the ITU’s vision for future 5G mobile broadband communications. 3GPP has also agreed that LPWA use cases will continue to only be addressed by evolving LTE-M and NB-IoT as part of the 5G specification process. 3GPP has also agreed that no 5G New Radio (5G NR) based solutions will be studied or specified for LPWA use cases in the foreseeable future. All these decisions reinforce the fact that NB-IoT and LTE-M will be the only 5G technologies to support LPWA use cases. It’s also important to note that most of the NB-IoT and LTE-M devices deployed today are firmware upgradable to support the 5G NB-IoT and LTE-M features, so it’s fair to say NB-IoT and LTE-M are on the path to 5G.
When NB-IoT and LTE-M were initially designed, special attention was given to make sure they operate in-band with an LTE system so that the LTE spectrum can be shared. The same is possible with 5G NR, where special attention was given to the design of 5G NR to make certain NB-IoT and LTE-M can operate or co-exists in-band to an NR system. This provides a forward compatible path for NB-IoT and LTE-M well into the 5G future, which may not include LTE.
3G UMTS and 4G LTE technologies use different core networks, which creates additional complexity and costs that drive operators to deprecate 3G technologies to get to a single core network. The same issue is not true for the newly specified 5G core network, which can connect to 5G NR as well as 5G LTE. To ensure similar compatibility for LTE-M and NB-IoT, 3GPP is in the process of studying mechanisms to allow NB-IoT and LTE-M to connect to the 5G core network. This will allow the 5G systems of the future to support LTE, NR, NB-IoT and LTE-M using the same core network. This is further evidence that NB-IoT and LTE-M are on the path to 5G.
NB-IoT and LTE-M Enable IoT Applications Today
In healthcare, many patient monitoring devices only need to record and transmit small amounts of data on a patient’s condition to a hospital. Similarly, in agriculture, the amount of weather or soil condition data that needs to be transmitted is minimal, and for smart cities, the same is true of sensors designed to detect how full a city dumpster is or how polluted the air is.
Instead of the high data rates and low latency, LPWA use cases like these require the four Cs described above:
- Low technology costs, in order to support wider deployments and improve application ROI
- Low current (power) consumption, so that batteries last 10 years or longer in the field
- Wide coverage, so applications can connect to devices in underground spaces, buildings and rural environments
- High connection capacity, so these applications can connect to large numbers of devices in a given area.
Sierra Wireless – A Leader in LTE-M and NB-IoT
Sierra Wireless offers extensive support today for enterprises interested in using LTE-M and NB-IoT to develop IoT applications. This support includes the AirPrime® HL Series and WP Series of embedded modules for LTE-M and NB-IoT cellular networks. These modules deliver best-in-class power savings and multi-mode global support so that they can be deployed on either LTE-M or NB-IoT networks. They also enable small form factors that reduce deployment and operational complexities, and include integrated GNSS for precision tracking of valuable assets.
5G will offer several new capabilities that could disrupt many markets, but it’s important to understand that, for IoT applications, the revolution – in the form of LTE-M and NB-IoT – is already here; it’s future proof and will be supported for many years to come with 5G and is thus clearly on the path to 5G.
This post also appears on the Sierra Wireless IoT Blog.