By now, many of us have heard about the Internet of Things – the trend that sees sensors and Internet connectivity embedded into just about every device and tool we use on a daily basis in both our personal and professional lives. From smart thermostats and LED lighting in your home to an array of instruments in your car to fitness wearables – the IT industry is connecting just about everything you can imagine to the Internet.
IHS, a market researcher, predicts that the Internet of Things market will grow from an installed base of 15.4 billion devices in 2015 to 30.7 billion devices in 2020 and a staggering 75.4 billion in 2025. The real power of these Internet-connected devices will kick in as they’re woven into a connected fabric of services that respond smartly, in real time to the environment and our needs.
For example, we could see the world’s urban areas become smart cities, where connected sensors and appliances drive everything from transport systems to emergency services. Big data from these sensors will allow city managers to monitor traffic, air quality, criminal activity, the power grid, the water system and to streamline a lot of the work that keeps a city humming.
The smart bin
Consider the example of Yinchuan in China, which is piloting smart bins that alert garbage collectors when they’re full and where facial recognition software is used to authenticate bus fare payments. We’re seeing similar trends play out in the smart home, the smart factory, the smart office and other environments as drones, robots, sensors and other devices automate many of the tasks we do each day and give us access to data about the world around us.
Yet the major obstacle we face in bringing this next-generation Internet of Things to life is connectivity. Yinchuan, known as one of the smartest cities in the world, invested in an 8000GB fibre optic network, and more than 5000 WiFi access points. This is a level of spending that may not be viable in larger and less dense cities – and it is the area where the fifth-generation (5G) mobile standard will have an important role to play.
As the evolution from LTE/4G, 5G is going to be the infrastructure that supports the billions upon billions of Internet of Things devices that will be connected to the network by 2025. The standard hasn’t been set in stone, but it is anticipated that 5G connectivity will be 10 or 12 times faster than LTE.
As welcome as the bandwidth boost will be, an arguably even more important benefit of 5G is the way it will support keeping vast numbers of devices connected under challenging conditions such as; by allowing a higher density of mobile broadband users, it will provide a platform for and reliable massive machine communications. 5G should also better support connectivity to remote areas (for example, imagine sensors in forests to provide early warning of fire) and inside buildings, even in basements or down mines.
Towards a more connected world
It will aim for lower batter consumption, which will be useful for many Internet of Things devices that are not plugged directly into the power grid. 5G research and development is working towards far lower latency than 4G equipment – in other words, to reduce the amount of time it takes a packet of data to move from one point to another and back again.
This is a critical point for many Internet of Things devices and applications, which need low latency more than they need lots of bandwidth. For example, an autonomous, self-driving vehicle needs reliable data about its environment so that it can avoid hazards in the road. A delay due to ‘lag’ could be the difference between it having a collision or avoiding it.
5G innovation is moving at a rapid pace, with the first big test for the technology expected at the 2018 Winter Olympics. As the final standards are set, we’ll start to see wider commercial deployment, with 2020 likely to be the year that we’ll see 5G really take off. By then, much of our world around us will be connected 24/7 and we’ll take a range of smart services for granted wherever we go.
By Ernst Wittmann