The wireless communications industry is warming up again to one of its favorite pastimes: hyping up a “new G”. This time it’s 5G, a technology that (if the wireless folk themselves are to be believed) will have an impact much beyond your smartphone.
5G is expected to encompass a broad range of radio access technologies (for instance Wi-Fi AND cellular) and to cater for all kinds of connected “things”, including ultra-low-power devices like wearables.
The International Telecommunications Union's secretary-general, Houlin Zhao, recently commented: "The buzz in the industry on future steps in mobile technology - 5G - has seen a sharp increase, with attention now focused on enabling a seamlessly connected society in the 2020 timeframe and beyond, that brings together people along with things, data, applications, transport systems and cities in a smart networked communications environment."
These are great aims: but note the timescale. Those of us who work in areas like ultra-low-power microcontrollers, the IoT and wearables are implementing these connected applications today. 2020 is a long time to wait for the wireless technology that will enable them. And yet some might even think Mr Zhao optimistic – to put things into perspective, the ITU specified the requirements for 4G in 2008: vendors and operators started putting “4G” labels on equipment and services just months later, but the reality is that even today the technology is only just entering the mainstream.
Yet there is no doubt that many IoT applications can benefit from the ubiquitous coverage, long transmission range, high reliability and robust security of a cellular approach. The good news is that the world of cellular is already taking steps along the road to what is termed the “Cellular IoT” (C-IoT), ahead of the definition of 5G. The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) is currently working on the details of Release 12 and 13 of the global cellular standards.
Release 12 will include a new category of device (a “user equipment” or UE in the jargon) called Cat-0, which by use of lower data rates, sleep and paging modes will be able to achieve 10 years of battery life based on two AA-batteries. The intention is to take this approach even further in Release 13.
Some players in the industry are backing an approach called LTE-MTC (Machine-Type Communications), which would be even more tailored to IoT-type applications, with reduced bandwidth and transmit power, extended coverage operation, and streamlined downlink transmission modes.
Of course, the mainstream cellular networks are not the only route to IoT connectivity. In fact, they have often been perceived as ill-suited to the needs of IoT and wearable applications. Some observers therefore suggest that a better solution is to create a network that is specifically designed for M2M communications. French company Sigfox already has networks in France and the Netherlands, using a cellular approach with optimizations for the needs of the IoT. US based start-up On-Ramp Wireless has a similar optimized approach, based on the IEEE 802.15 communications standard for wireless personal area networks (WPAN). There’s an interesting overview of some of the pros and cons of these various approaches here.
What’s certain is that the IoT and wearables market will continue to expand – and those of us working in the area will “find a way” to connect our products, whatever shape the standards eventually take. 5G is a wide, encompassing ideal, but there’s no need to wait: the future starts now.