It’s true that inorganic users don’t yell at customer-service reps or trash-talk companies on Twitter. But connected devices can also benefit from some less-obvious upgrades that 5G should deliver.
You may have heard about 5G’s Internet-of-Things potential yourself in such gauzy statements as “5G will make every industry and every part of our lives better” and “It’s a wholly new technology ushering in a new era of transformation”.
But as with 5G in the smartphone and home-broadband contexts, the ripple effects alluded to in statements are potentially huge – and they will take years to land on our shores. Yes, you’ve heard this before: the news is big, but it’s still early days.
Massively multiplayer mobile bandwidth
The long-term map for 5G IoT promises to support a density of devices far beyond what current-generation LTE can deliver – up to a million “things” per square kilometer, versus almost 61,000 under today’s 4G. That density will open up possibilities that today would require a horrendous amount of wired connectivity.
For example, precision-controlled factories could take advantage of the space in the airwaves to implement extremely granular monitoring, and 5G IoT promises to do that job for less. “You can put tons of environmental sensors everywhere,” said Recon Analytics founder Roger Entner. “You can put a tag on every piece of equipment.”
“Either I upgrade this to fiber to connect the machines, or I use millimeter-wave 5G in the factory,” echoes Rüdiger Schicht, a senior partner with the Boston Consulting Group. “Everything we hear on reliability and manageability of that infrastructure indicates that 5G is superior.”
Millimeter-wave 5G runs on bands of frequencies starting at 24GHz, far above the frequencies employed for LTE. The enormous amounts of free spectrum up there allow for gigabit speeds – at the cost of range, which would be limited to a thousand feet or so. That still exceeds Wi-Fi’s reach, though.
Low-band 5G on the same frequencies today used for 4G doesn’t allow for a massive speed boost but should at least cover far more ground, while mid-band 5G should offer a good mix of speed and coverage – at least, once carriers have more free spectrum on which to provide that coverage.
In the US, fixing those spectrum issues hinges on the Federal Communications Commission’s recently-announced plan to auction off 280MHz of so-called C-band spectrum, between 3.2GHz and 3.98GHz, on a sped-up timetable that could see those bands in service in two to three years.
And that means there’s some time to figure things out. Companies aren’t lighting up connected devices by the millions just yet.
The current 5G standard – formally speaking, 3GPP Release 15 – does not include support for the enormous device density we’re talking about. That will have to wait until Release 16, now in its final stages of approval, although Entner warns that we won’t see compatible hardware for at least another year or two.
Another upcoming 5G feature promises the same sort of breakthrough in reliability and performance that desktop operating systems delivered when they moved from cooperative multitasking (programs have to be polite enough to stay out of each other’s way) to preemptive multitasking (the operating system keeps them in their own lane).
5G’s version of this is called “network slicing,” in which a wireless carrier can divide its bandwidth into discrete channels, each with its own defined specifications for speed, capacity and latency.
Take the example of a 5G-connected car. “An operator could provide one network slice for lower-bandwidth but critical communications and another slice for consumer entertainment, each with their particular quality-of-service requirements,” explained Rysavy Research President Peter Rysavy in an email exchange with Ars.
For wireless carriers, meanwhile, network slicing offers the promise of transcending their dumb-pipe status by offering a defined service they couldn’t guarantee before.
“Suddenly you can actually have SLAs [service-level agreements] that are worth the paper they’re written on,” Entner said. “The carrier can actually dedicate resources to you, the client, and guarantee that you actually get that.”
Schicht was not as sold on the potential for network slicing, commenting that “there’s a lot of fantasy” about it. But he did suggest that it could work on a nationwide level for such wide-area tasks as ensuring public-safety communication.
If that sounds to you like the sort of paid prioritization deals that net-neutrality advocates decry, you may not be wrong.
“The steps between network slicing and paid prioritization are not very many,” warned Stan Adams, open Internet counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology, at a January briefing hosted by that Washington think tank.
All of this, however, lies even further in 5G’s future than a massive increase in the scale of Internet-of-Things devices.
“Full network-slicing capability will occur in Release 17, so deployments will be in the 2023 to 2024 timeframe,” Rysavy tells us. “It’s a bit early now to determine what type of markets operators will be addressing with slicing.”
That timing should also allow more time for carriers to amass the mid-band spectrum they need to avoid getting stuck between mmWave and low-band, with their forced compromises of range or speed.
Cloud computing gets edgy
The third big IoT possibility in 5G hinges on the technology’s low latency, which promises to erase (or at least minimize to near-irrelevance) the difference between on-device processing and remote computation by eliminating most of the network hops between a device and a data center.
“We cannot afford to send the data all the way to the data center and back,” explained Cristina Rodriguez, vice president of Intel’s Data Center Group, at an October event in Washington, DC, hosted by Georgetown University’s business school. “In other words, we need distributed data centers.”
In this edge-computing model, computation would happen closer to individual devices: not so much cloud as fog. Much like network slicing, it offers wireless carriers a chance to make their connections less of a commodity product.
Both edge computing and network slicing also benefit from 5G’s improved authentication and encryption. “There’s a security by design,” Schicht said. “You get this all embedded in how you build and design the network.”
“The steps between network slicing and paid prioritization are not very many.” Peter Brown, chief solutions architect at Wind River, said in an email sent by a publicist that 5G-served edge computing builds on the ongoing move in services from full-stack virtual machines to containerized applications.
Cloud vendors have been inking their deals with wireless carriers to ensure they remain part of this future, Rysavy noted. For example, Microsoft is working with AT&T to deploy its Azure stack on the edges of AT&T’s network. Amazon’s Wavelength, meanwhile, offers the ability to embed AWS processing and storage in the data outposts of such carriers as Verizon, Vodafone, and KDDI.
“These edge systems will support both 4G and 5G,” he added. “5G, however, has an advantage, because it facilitates breakout of application data at the edge.”
But here, too, Rysavy advised against expecting a quick revolution: “It’s early days for edge computing, so I expect edge computing to evolve and mature throughout the 2020s.”