5G Is Coming—But What Does It Mean for the IoT In 2021?

By Carsten Rhod Gregersen

The next phase in the evolution of telecommunications presents a world of new opportunities for connected devices.

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It is tough to write something about 5G which hasn’t already been written. The tech seems to have equal parts fans and critics, with neither camp giving an accurate sense of what the next-generation telecommunications network will actually bring. For the average person coming into 2021, 5G largely remains a confusing technological evolution with unclear benefits or detractors. So with the new year ahead of us, it is worth reevaluating where the technology is and where it is going in relation to the Internet of Things (IoT). Let’s sort the truth from the hype of what 5G will bring to connected devices.

What We Know
We do know that 5G is going to be fast—really fast. The tech’s potential for ultra-high throughput—up to 4Gbps at peak speeds—and low latency is what IoT industry insiders predict will push forward applications which depend on a data-rich environment. For example, 5G is likely to enable us to control more devices remotely in applications for which real-time network performance is critical, such as remote control of heavy machinery in hazardous environments, thereby improving worker safety, and even remote surgery.

Until now, remote surgery using wireless networks has been impossible because the lag time between input and output lasts around a quarter of a second. 5G, on the other hand, reduces latency to an almost instantaneous 2 milliseconds between devices. In effect, 5G promises to make remote medical care a reality and to be a change agent for the future of the industry. Of course, the IoT connection type for remote surgeries would need to offer direct communication and high security,  like peer-to-peer, to enable peak network performance.

Not only will 5G connections be fast, but they will be reliable. Tests show that 5G can support one million connected devices per square kilometer—10 times more than is possible with LTE. This means supplying connection at massive events like football games and music festivals, as well as driving the smart-city and smart-building capabilities of the future. This poses major enhancements to mobile broadband bandwidth, and could bring  IoT protocols and standards to never-before-seen levels of performance.

What We Don’t Know
There is a lot to be excited about when anticipating the technical improvements that 5G promises IoT—so what’s the catch? Well, the catch is that excitement often gives rise to exaggerations and distortions. Meanwhile, in the more extreme cases, exaggerations and distortions balloon into conspiracies and untruths.

Besides the (laughable) conspiracy theories, the most pertinent fiction surrounding 5G for connected devices is the belief that it will change the world overnight. In comparing the technology to previous network upgrades like 3G and 4G, however, expectations should be tempered. While it is likely, for example, to make possible the digitization of factory floors thanks to high sensor density, network overhauls take time and the results will not be instantaneous. Instead, adoption will be slow and such improvements will happen incrementally over the coming decade.

Ericsson AB’s latest Mobility Report points out there will be 550 million 5G subscriptions in 2022. If this timeline is anything to go by, we are still years away from connected devices becoming commonplace in remote surgeries or heavy machinery.

Where We Are Going In 2021 And Beyond
So, with the fact sorted from the fiction, let’s consider the two main factors which will determine adoption throughout the next 12 months and beyond. The first is price. 5G is more expensive than other communication methods and this could prevent adoption by smaller device creators in these nascent years. This does not seem to be a problem for bigger device creators, on the other hand, who are fighting to bring this tech to the market at lower prices.

The average selling prices of 5G phones fell by more than $200 from January to July, reaching an all-time low of $730. Meanwhile, 5G phones increased their share of total smartphone sales from 3 percent to 11 percent during the same period. Price is an integral component for device creators and consumers, and it will be interesting to see how both parties react as the global network rollout reaches completion.

The second is energy. Connected device vendors will need to consider the energy impact of the next-generation network in terms of the product they are creating. If their device runs on battery and does not have any use case for 5G, for example, other lower-energy technologies might suit better. Device creators, therefore, should be testing and experimenting as much as possible today in deciding whether the move to 5G makes sense tomorrow. Moreover, if creators do not test extensively, many new devices will not transition effectively, with likely bugs reducing the potential gains that 5G has to offer.

Heading into 2021, there are many more reasons to be excited than apprehensive about 5G. The network’s technical capabilities are without question and the device application possibilities are only bound by vendor imagination. While adoption is unlikely to occur overnight, this next phase in the evolution of telecommunications presents a world of new opportunities for connected devices.

Carsten Rhod Gregersen is the CEO and Founder of Nabto, a P2P IoT connectivity provider that enables remote control of devices with secure end-to-end encryption.