12 Nov 2019

Start your 5G journey today – with 4G LTE

It’ll be years before 5G is fully implemented. You don’t need to wait until then to embrace the benefits of tomorrow’s connected industry.

Get started with 5G - u-blox

It’ll be years before 5G is fully implemented. You don’t need to wait until then to embrace the benefits of tomorrow’s connected industry.

With all the hype surrounding 5G, the next generation of cellular technology, it might sound like a good idea to put off investments into the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) until the standard is fully implemented. After all, why pour money into a technology that is on its way out when a technological revolution is in the making? There’s just one thing: Far from going obsolete, 4G LTE is still gaining traction. According to the GSMA, it will continue to grow its footprint for years to come and dominate the market for even longer, complementing and even underpinning 5G networks as they take root.

A point that tends to get lost amid the noise around 5G is that, for the coming years and well into the next decade, 4G LTE will remain the strongest contender for Industrial IoT solutions. In this blog, we’ll lay out why. But first, we’ll look at what 5G is and isn’t, and how it is expected to roll out. In the end, it should be clear that 5G isn’t a single “thing,” and that it wasn’t designed to replace 4G LTE, but rather to complement it.

A game changer - eventually

There’s no doubt that 5G will be transformational. Much of the hype behind the technology is warranted, and it actually stands a chance of living up to its lofty ambition of fundamentally transforming the role the technology plays in the society, culminating in an “Internet of Everything.”  And it will do so by leveraging a number of, admittedly, disruptive innovations.

  • 5G adds new spectrum bands, including sub-1 GHz and mmWave (>24 GHz) to expand capacity.
  • It offers up to 1 GHz channel bandwidth per operator in mmWave bands to achieve ultra-high broadband speeds.
  • It introduces a new radio interface (5G NR) that is versatile enough to serve diverse needs.
  • It will require a new core network with small cells, network slicing, network virtualization, edge computing, and more to meet requirements and tailor performance to industry-specific requirements.

As we’ve outlined in a previous blogpost, 5G’s specifications cater to a range of new use cases that are relevant in industrial applications, from a new generation of human machine interfaces to automated manufacturing to ubiquitous sensing and cloud connectivity. Each use case can be enabled using the right balance between 5G’s three fundamental pillars:  

  • Enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) will deliver data transfer rates in excess of 10 gigabits per second while increasing capacity by three orders of magnitude.
  • Ultra-reliable low latency communication (URLLC) will target an astounding reliability of up to 99.9999% at sub-millisecond latencies.
  • Finally, massive machine type communications (mMTC) will further extend the promise of today’s low power wide area (LPWA) networks, delivering sporadic data with low power requirements at a low cost.

A staggered rollout

That’s quite a lot to look forward to, both in terms of performance enhancements and innovation potential. But fully rolling out 5G around the globe will take time, and the agenda will be dictated by several factors. For one, mobile network operators all have their own rollout timetables and priorities, depending on the business case they see in their respective markets, as well as their willingness and capacity to make the considerable investments that 5G requires. And then, 3GPP isn’t releasing the 5G specifications in one fell swoop for all industries. Instead, each new release adds additional features to the technology.

3GPP release 15, 16, and beyond

3GPP Release 15 was mostly about making eMBB and its high-speed data transfer – a feature that primarily targets consumer markets – possible. It was broken down into three sub-releases. The first, focusing on the non-stand-alone (NSA) implementation of the technology, was put on a fast track and delivered in late 2017. Major MNOs have since brought the technology to key markets in urban areas. 5G NSA builds on existing 4G LTE networks.

The second sub-release, which deals with the stand-alone (SA) implementation of 5G, was finalized in mid-2018, followed by the final one, which tied a number of technical enhancements, in early 2019. Because MNOs are still busy rolling out 5G NSA, it could be a few more years before we see commercial rollouts of the stand-alone variant.

The upcoming release 16, slated for delivery sometime in the first half of 2020, will finally come closer to tackling the two pillars that will most impact the connected industry: URLLC and, finally, mMTC. URLLC, in particular, will require dedicated network implementation. This will continue in release 17, scheduled for September 2021, the full scope of which will be confirmed at the end of 2019, with groups such as the 5G-ACIA working to provide valuable input for dedicated IIoT use cases.

A smooth transition for low power, wide area networks

So what does this mean for classic Industrial IoT applications that rely on low power, wide area (LPWA) connectivity? Examples may include remotely monitoring machines and assets, and connecting smart meters. Today, these use cases are covered by NB-IoT or LTE-M, defined and updated in 3GPP releases 13 to 16, and are only now beginning to ramp up in real-world deployments. [tweetable]To ensure the longevity of today's LPWA solutions, the 3GPP consortium is going out of its way to ensure a smooth migration path from 4G LTE to 5G technologies.[/tweetable]

As a result,

  • LTE networks will be available for another decade or more.
  • LTE IoT will continue to evolve well into the 5G era, future-proofing your investments with further improvements in power consumption, performance, device size, features, and cost.
  • 5G networks will be backwards compatible with today’s LTE IoT devices, which means that LTE IoT will live on even as 5G goes mainstream.
  • 5G IoT chipsets and devices will likely support “legacy” LTE IoT modes, making them work with the 4G IoT networks of today and the 5G IoT networks of tomorrow.

In conclusion, when it comes to LPWA use cases, NB-IoT and LTE-M will continue to be the technologies of choice for many connected industry applications – remote monitoring, predictive maintenance, smart metering – and that well into the 5G era. Future releases of 5G technology will bring new possibilities, enabling applications and use cases that lie beyond the scope of 4G LTE. 

Ludger Boeggering

Senior Principal Application Marketing EMEA, Energy and Industry 4.0, u-blox


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