Ushering in the era of Narrowband 5G
By now, we all have heard about the “Internet of Things” or “IoT.” It is an all-encompassing term that broadly describes the concept of an interconnected network of physical objects, including machines, wearables, buildings, and a plethora of other types of devices. And these connected “things” will enable new services and deliver new levels of efficiency all around us, in homes, businesses, cities, and across industries. We expect the global IoT opportunity to grow very quickly in the coming years (and it already has), and it is predicted that there will be 10’s of billions of connected “things” in the very near future, fueling the multi-trillion-dollar economic growth across key market sectors. The IoT will be much more than about connecting people to things, but extending existing networks to also bring machines and devices to work with one another.
However, connecting the IoT is not quite as simple as it sounds, the wide variety of IoT devices are driving very diverse computing and connectivity requirements. For example, connecting smart door knobs at home requires very different technologies than monitoring and controlling mission-critical drones. In essence, connecting the IoT will require heterogeneous connectivity technologies that offer different levels of capabilities and optimizations to address the varying needs. Below is a highly simplified illustration of today’s wireless technologies used by the IoT.
Fig 1: Examples of wireless connectivity technologies for IoT
One of the high-growth areas in the IoT realm is the Low-Power Wide-Area (LPWA)IoT, suitable for many wide-area IoT applications across numerous industries, such as smart cities, connected industrial, asset tracking, and much more. And cellular technologies, like 4G LTE, are playing an increasingly important role in delivering reliable, secure, interoperable communications with ubiquitous coverage for these LPWA use cases.
5G is expected to bring new levels of capability and efficiency not only to the massive IoT, but also enable new mission-critical control services with low-latency, high-reliability communications links
To better address this rapidly expanding market, the organization responsible for the LTE standard, 3GPP, has recently accelerated and completed the standardization of a new LTE-based narrowband technology designed for the LPWA IoT, called NB-IoT (NB for narrowband). This new technology, along with the previously completed eMTC (enhanced Machine-Type-Communications) technology, is part of Release 13 of the global 3GPP standard. Together, they deliver enhancements in both the LTE air interface and network that will bring new levels of efficiency for low-throughput, delay-tolerant communications common in many IoT use cases. They also introduce two new LTE IoT device categories (Cat-M1 and Cat-NB1) that are part of a unified, scalable LTE IoT platform.
Figure 2: Scalable LTE IoT Platform
NB-IoT and eMTC bring many enhancements and optimizations to LTE that will reduce IoT device complexity, enable multi-year battery life, and provide deeper coverage to reach challenging locations such as deep inside buildings and remote rural areas. The new technologies also can leverage existing LTE infrastructure and spectrum, coexisting with today’s mobile broadband services.
Now that the 3GPP standardization on these new narrowband LTE IoT technologies is complete, the mobile industry is progressing toward commercialization of these new technologies driven by a high level of interest from the entire ecosystem. These new technologies provide a superior solution to emerging non-3GPP technologies for LPWA and other IoT applications. Here are just a few benefits of the cellular-based LTE IoT solutions.
Figure 3: LTE IoT delivers significant value for LPWA applications
In addition to these, 3GPP is backed by a mature ecosystem with a rich roadmap to 5G. In fact, NB-IoT will continue to evolve beyond Release 13 with new features, such as support for multicast and positioning, establishing the foundation for Narrowband 5G IoT.
Beyond NB-IoT evolution, 3GPP is also defining a unified, more capable 5G air interface, or 5G New Radio (NR). The development of this specification is now well underway, and it is expected to bring new levels of capability and efficiency not only to the massive IoT (think low-power sensors everywhere), but also enable new mission-critical control services with low-latency, high-reliability communications links (think drones and industrial robots).
5G will further enhance the way IoT devices communicate with the network and one another. Just to give a couple of examples of what 5G will bring – it will enable new capabilities such as grant-free, asynchronous transmissions to lower signaling overhead and device power consumption, and multi-hop mesh to further extend network coverage. And to better address the needs of mission-critical control services, 5G will deliver ultra-low latency communications (down to 1 ms end-to-end), as well as provide significant improvements to system reliability, service availability, and security. The new, flexible network architecture will allow the creation of virtualized network slices that can enable uncompromised performance and efficiency for all services hosted on the next-generation 5G network. All in all, connecting the Internet of Things will be an integral part of 5G, and we are all excited by the boundless potential it will bring in taking us one step closer to our vision of a totally interconnected world.