Don’t focus only on 5G when it comes to launching IoT offerings

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The Internet of Things (IoT) has been maturing for 20 years with some companies driving long-established strategies with high volumes of connections and demonstrably successful business cases.

These established deployments are helping their owners generate money, save costs and achieve compliance but, as Peter Fowler, senior vice president North America at Quectel Wireless Solutions says, many make the mistake of assuming that IoT is a new development that has been waiting for 5G to become available. 

IoT has never been and certainly isn’t today a one-size-fits-all industry so it’s wrong to think that future growth is all about 5G. For applications that demand very high speed data connectivity, very low latency and extremely high device density per cell and that have business cases that can sustain 5G costs, 5G is a vital enabler. It will power new applications, new business models and new revenue streams but it is certainly not the only game in town.

IoT interpretations are flexible

Don’t forget that not all companies are the same and that IoT is not a single concept. Interpretations of IoT are flexible and different organisations utilise it and see and derive value from IoT in different ways. For some, this will involve infrequent low-capacity communications at enormous scale, for others the latency performance of LTE is adequate, while for still more organisations, cost and battery life are more important than 5G attributes, assuming coverage is available in all the places they operate.

When it comes to connectivity, many of the current IoT offerings don’t need the capabilities of 5G because their operational priorities are cost, ease of deployment and coverage rather than speed, device density and the low latency of 5G.

For these organisations there are well-established connectivity options from 3G through 4G/LTE and encompassing connectivity options in the low power wide area networks (LPWANs) segment. Lower performance technologies such as narrowband-IoT (NB-IoT), which is often bundled into the 5G umbrella, also have potential to meet many of the market place’s diverse range of needs.

5G will accelerate growth

The flipside to this is that newly emerging, more sophisticated IoT offerings, such as remote medical treatment, low latency gaming and assisted driving, do need 5G attributes and, while IoT is growing well without 5G, the arrival of 5G will accelerate growth and even enable the existence of these applications. Much of this growth is contingent on nationwide 5G coverage becoming widely available and current 5G deployments are largely confined to private networks for campuses, manufacturing complexes and specific locations such as universities and hospitals.

5G coverage is growing but it is still far from comprehensive and the cellular industry organisation, GSMA, reported in 2020 that 7% of the world’s population was covered and 5G will account for 20% of global connections by 2025. It’s therefore clear that mobile operators are committed to the technology and businesses are starting to identify the benefits of 5G. However, without comprehensive, global coverage, 5G IoT applications, especially those involving moving devices, such as track and trace applications, won’t be viable.

Current challenges with 5G

In the absence of comprehensive 5G coverage, private 5G networks help shine a light onto how 5G will be utilised but these also highlight the current challenges associated with 5G for moving objects that traverse large areas and move from site-to-site. 5G is not in a position in most markets today to enable mobility beyond a set geographical area.

To enable this demands fall back to 4G or even to earlier networks such as 3G. It’s worth mentioning that 2G networks are starting to be retired and IoT devices will eventually need to move from these but for many use cases, this will not necessitate a leap to 5G when there are great alternatives already mature and with large devices and support ecosystems already in place.

It is far too convenient to try and lump the IoT industry into one single, neat persona when preferences, demands and capabilities are highly-fragmented. The truth is that original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) of devices have been experimenting in IoT for more than 20 years and many have long-established IoT businesses that have been generating benefits since well before 4G became available, let alone 5G.

Delivery companies such as FedEx and UPS have been using IoT devices to track and manage delivery for decades and the same is true for vehicle tracking devices for police forces, rugged notebooks, home alarms and even payment terminals. The model for successful roll-out is long-established and 5G is less of a disrupter than a further enabler for some IoT applications.

This is not to say that IoT doesn’t want or need 5G. The most important point is that IoT isn’t a single, unified industry so, while not every IoT app needs 5G, some parts of the market will not only want 5G attributes, they will be enabled and empowered by 5G. Other parts of the market will continue to be well-addressed by non-5G connectivity for many years to come.

In the same way that you wouldn’t use your race-prepared muscle car for your daily commute because the performance you need can be provided by a mainstream sedan, you don’t need to use 5G to enable basic, reliable and secure connectivity. If you’re a smart city monitoring garbage bins, you don’t need 5G connectivity. However, if speed really matters, you won’t be taking your commuter car to the dragstrip to try and set a quarter-mile time.

Customers need a portfolio of IoT module options

Given the diversity of requirements, global customers require a huge portfolio of IoT module options to meet the needs of every type of IoT user and application. It is our mission to help our customers build a smarter world with modules for other network technologies that enable them to select the optimal connectivity for their business, applications and users. It takes a global village to connect devices and people to networks and services. Together we can further power digital innovation to make life more convenient, efficient, comfortable, prosperous and secure.

The author is Peter Fowler is senior vice president North America at Quectel.

About the author

Quectel is the company to bring a 5G IoT module to market and is a global supplier of cellular IoT modules and antennas. Peter Fowler is senior vice president North America at Quectel, and is responsible for the business in the North America region.

In 2002 Peter launched Siemens Wireless Modules North America, where he served as vice president. When the modules unit was spun out of Siemens, Peter was president of the Cinterion legal entities in the US and Brazil. Following the eventual purchase of Cinterion by Gemalto, Peter was appointed executive vice president of Global Sales. Upon joining Quectel, Peter has focused on implementing the best practices and processes for developing regional market share. Peter lives in Point Roberts, Washington, USA and has three sons.

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