The week of December 18, the 3GPP is meeting in Lisbon to decide what will be the first stage of 5G New Radio (5G-NR): non-standalone (NSA) operation. Assuming they nail down the details, it will set in motion a chain of events that will see the formation of a completely new wireless and core networking infrastructure that will pave the way for the seamless connection of a massive number of IoT devices with cellular networks.
There were elements of IoT addressed in Release 13 of the 3GPP in the form of Cat-M and Narrowband IoT, but these were quick add-ons to the current cellular operators to address the burgeoning need for low-power, wide-area coverage for IoT applications. These add-ons helped them compete with more nimble technologies such as Sigfox and LoRaWAN in the unlicensed bands by providing wide coverage in more protected licensed bands for smart city, agriculture and industry applications.
It’s not surprising that most of the attention goes to the 3GPP’s work around enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB), especially with much-publicized pre-5G cellular deployments in the works. Most notably, KT’s self-imposed commitment to roll out 5G for the upcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, (February 9 to February 25).
While eMBB, which promises 100-Mbit/s downloads per user, is one usage model for 5G, there are two others: ultra-reliable, low-latency communications (URLLC) and massive machine-type communications (mMTC). Both of these models have sweeping implications for anyone developing IoT solutions (Figure 1).
Figure 1: The 3GPP’s work on 5G radio and core networks provides for massive IoT deployments and ultra-low latency. (Image source: 5G Americas)
The 3GPP is working on the standard with an eye toward meeting the requirements for 5G as set forth by the International Telecommunications Union, Radio in its IMT2020 document. The big picture is that cellular networks have the potential to go beyond smartphones and apps and be a foundational, unifying connectivity platform for mobile broadband, IoT, smart and autonomous vehicles, and critical low-latency communications for mission-critical applications.
To accomplish this goal, the 3GPP split their effort in two parts: the NSA portion being decided upon in Lisbon this month will allow operators to leverage current LTE radio networks to help operators deploy eMBB with minimal effort, at least until their backhaul networks are saturated.
In June of 2018, the 3GPP will vote 5G-NR standalone (SA). The heavy lifting will happen here to develop the back-end 5G Core (5GC) network standard, which is why it was separated from the front-end. For this core network, one of the emphases is on virtualization. The more the software is abstracted from the hardware, the more flexible and cost-effective the network becomes.
Another emphasis is enabling sufficient quality-of-service (QoS) stratification such that critical applications can get the response times and data rates they need. This has led to the concept of network slicing (Figure 2).
Figure 2: 5G uses a virtualized approach that also allows for network slicing to provide the QoS needed for low-latency IoT applications. (Image source: 5G Americas).
For IoT solution providers, the upshot of this much-anticipated 5G standard is that planning can begin for a more integrated approach to IoT. They can expect an option that more deftly uses available spectrum, from sub 1 GHz all the way up to 100 GHz, as well as network resources, to implement the optimum IoT deployment scenario for the application, with the capability to guarantee QoS. It may mean partnering with an operator, or multiple operators if the solution is global.
Few interesting aspects of the 5G mMTC and URLLC usage models include how it will affect current automotive vehicle-to-vehicle, vehicle to infrastructure and vehicle to everything (V2X) development, which has to date been focused on the use of IEEE 802.11p for low-latency communications. Advocates of cellular-based V2X, such as Qualcomm, may well win out, long term.
Another aspect is how the URLLC capabilities being developed by 3GPP will augment IoT. Near real-time sensing and analysis and response to user activity, health issues or remote infrastructure malfunctions hold enormous potential.
The 3GPP plans to bring NSA and SA together by the end of 2019, but it’s fair to assume there will be experiments between now and then.