The past decade has seen unprecedented advances in technology, including the widespread use of smartphones, billions of internet-of-things devices being deployed in all areas of industry, the introduction of Industry 4.0, and the rise of edge computing. But this technological growth is not slowing down. While this is advantageous in many ways, it is also straining infrastructure. It is clear that next-generation technology will not be able to function unless this infrastructure issue is met head on.
One particularly troublesome factor is the introduction of cloud computing, because it removes the need for individual devices to process their own data. Although this dramatically simplifies their design and lowers their cost, it also requires higher bandwidth and lower latency.
Edge computing is one solution that can alleviate some of the issues that cloud computing faces. However, because edge computing devices will likely be in a local network, bandwidth restrictions can see performance degradation for other internet-connected devices connected to the same network.
Network tech challenges
Numerous network technologies exist, with each having its own advantages and disadvantages. The major network technologies in widespread use include Wi-Fi, cellular, long-range (LoRa), and cables (that is, fiber).
Wi-Fi provides an excellent balance between speed, latency, and cost, which is why it has dominated the home wireless market. But the higher frequencies that 5 GHz and 6 GHz use reduce their effective range.
Cellular networks like 4G have been developed with mobile technologies in mind, and as such, they offer excellent characteristics with range and device support. However, they are impractical for real-time IoT applications. They have large download speeds but suffer from latency due to the length of time waiting for a time slot.
LoRa radio is a network technology that is gaining popularity in remote IoT applications due to its low energy requirements and long-range capabilities (over 15 km in some cases). To reduce energy consumption, LoRa has an extremely small bandwidth and is only ideal for sending bytes of data. (It is not suitable for live-streaming video.) As such, LoRa is commonly found in remote industrial sites, such as oil pipelines, farms monitoring large amounts of land, and environmental sensors identifying potential forest fire risks.
Optical fiber, also called fiber, is the ultimate solution when it comes to speed and latency, because using a physical connection removes the need for a high-energy antenna, sensitive receivers, and complex network hardware. However, the physical nature of cables means that only devices physically attached to the cable can utilize the network.
What 5G offers
Unlike its predecessor, 5G has been designed with connectivity in mind, with a key focus on IoT devices, edge computing, and cloud computing. As such, its primary aim is to give customers higher speeds, lower latency, and infrastructure that can improve network services.
5G utilizes higher frequencies in the microwave region, which increases its bandwidth (reaching as high as 20 Gbps) and utilizes multiple nonoverlapping channel frequencies. Additionally, the use of MIMO antenna and beamforming further reduces the interference between devices operating on the same channel.
5G also significantly reduces the latency of connections using numerous techniques, including network slicing, nonfixed time slots, and local edge computing services. Network slicing allows 5G networks to create individual channels that minimize the number of simultaneous devices using any one channel, while the introduction of nonfixed time slots enables 5G devices to transmit data whenever they need to.
Finally, in 5G networks, data-heavy cloud services can be located closer to users, which means connected clients can access resources much faster. (Instead of going from device to cell tower to internet and back again, clients can directly access the cell tower and get the data they need.)
While 5G is still in its infancy, numerous applications can seriously benefit from the high-bandwidth, low-latency capabilities offered.
One such example would be vehicle-to-everything (V2X). A major challenge that automotive manufacturers face is the development of autonomous driving and collision avoidance. Current solutions must operate independently, meaning they often rely on numerous imaging technologies, including radar and LiDAR. While this is beneficial in handling unusual situations, it still sees limited response times and introduces unknowns.
However, V2X proposes a solution whereby all devices (including all vehicles, pedestrians, road signs, and traffic control systems) report critical data such as position, direction, and speed. Using 5G network data, vehicles on the road can predict collision risks well in advance while also warning pedestrians and other vehicles of their own position, speed, and direction. As such, V2X presents numerous safety and traffic management opportunities thanks to the low latency and large device support that 5G offers.
Industrial sites are another promising application for private 5G networks, whereby operators create and manage their own 5G networks. Many industrial processes often rely on real-time data obtained from machinery, which is why industrial systems have historically struggled to operate on common LAN networks. The large number of simultaneous connections combined with the use of autonomous delivery systems that can move throughout a plant also make technologies such as Wi-Fi unsuitable.
The ability for 5G network devices to roam between access points without losing connection and offer low latencies makes 5G ideal for use in industrial sites. Not only can such networks support the high device count, but traffic can be prioritized depending on its importance. (Better latency can be provided to real-time data packets.) Furthermore, the use of edge-computing services located at individual access points decreases latency while reducing the stress placed on the larger network.
The introduction of IoT devices has also opened new possibilities in city management and planning, sparking a new sector of IoT: smart cities. Arguably the two largest challenges that city management faces involve traffic management and pollution. Cities can manage traffic by monitoring vehicles and road usage, and they can manage pollution with the widespread deployment of air-quality sensors. However, the current network infrastructure cannot handle thousands of sensors across a city, and the security challenges introduced by such devices mean that whatever network is used must be built on security.
5G networks are perfect for the development of smart cities, not just because of their ability to handle thousands of devices and offer large bandwidths but because of their ability to run virtual networks that can deploy strong security practices that remove the need for passwords and API keys and favor physical device authentication.
5G offers engineers exciting new possibilities thanks to its increased bandwidth, improved latency, and ability to support edge computing. Furthermore, the ability to create private 5G networks opens new opportunities for businesses and manufacturers. Finally, the ability to run services at the edge can improve cloud-based applications for millions of customers.