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8 Jan

How 5G Will Revolutionise the Internet of Things

Folio1 Continuous Delivery

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is transforming businesses. It's introducing unprecedented levels of coordination among sensors and controllers. Machines can detect maintenance issues, supply bottlenecks, and emergency conditions and react automatically or notify operations personnel. The number of devices in a single building can run into the thousands. They deliver on their potential only if they communicate efficiently. A change in a reading may require a response within milliseconds.

How will industries meet this challenge? Wired connections are obviously impossible for such huge numbers, but maintaining wireless performance isn't easy either. Existing approaches don't scale up sufficiently. Tomorrow's answers may lie in 5G cellular communication.

5G and small cells

As its name suggests, 5G is the successor to 4G cellular technology. It isn't widely deployed yet, but it will become more important in 2019 and should see some large deployments in 2020. It's more than an increase in speed. It offers very low latency, even when handling large numbers of devices. Latency, not bandwidth, is what IIoT devices need lots of. They usually don't have large amounts of data to send. What's important isn't how fast the bytes travel, but how much the delay in propagating them can be reduced.

What 5G offers is small cells — low-powered, limited-range base stations that can handle a lot of devices without expending a lot of power. They often use millimetre waves, at the high-frequency end of the radio spectrum. Waves in this range are more directional than normal radio, so antenna positioning is important and the distance can't be very long. An industrial plant can deploy a large number of small cells to connect all its devices to a single network. The specifications allow secure communication.

Types of small cells

There are three categories of 5G small cells: microcells, picocells, and femtocells.

Microcells have a range of 500 metres, more under good conditions, and they consume 2 to 5 watts. They can handle up to 200 connections at a time.

Picocells have a shorter range and consume less power. The range can be as much as 250 metres, and typical power consumption is 250 milliwatts. They can handle as many as 64 connections.

Femtocells are very short-range, at up to 50 metres. They can handle up to 16 connections and consume around a tenth of a watt.

For industrial applications, picocells are likely to hit the optimal spot for stationary devices. As many as necessary can be deployed, optimising their antenna positions to cover the devices they communicate with. On a per-connection basis, they're more economical in power than microcells. Femtocells handle fewer connections, so the number of them needed in a large operation could become inconvenient.

Wi-Fi and 5G

The large majority of IoT devices today support Wi-Fi communication. The problem with it is that it can't offer any guarantees of maximum latency. Its performance doesn't scale well with large numbers of devices on one access point. The 5G specification calls for a maximum latency of 4 ms. Devices meeting the requirements of URLLC (ultra-reliable low-latency communications) bring that down to one millisecond. A plant with thousands of devices on Wi-Fi can't achieve very good reaction times. Moving to 5G will allow new levels of real-time response.

Concerns and costs

While 5G offers significant advantages, moving an industrial operation to it will require a large effort. A new generation of devices will have to replace the existing ones. Buildings will need enough small cells, deployed in the right locations, to cover them all. Making the transition will require not only a significant investment in equipment, but a period of configuration and testing for devices that may number in the thousands. The first businesses to do this will be exploring unfamiliar territory.

Still, enterprises will find the upgrade worth the investment, for the same reasons that they moved to the IIoT in the first place. In the long run, they'll realise gains in productivity and face lower maintenance costs. Today's technologies will be around for years in many businesses, but before long 5G small cells will be an important part of industrial technology.

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