Imagine: You’re in the back of an ambulance. You have some serious stomach pain. You don’t know if it’s a burst appendix or just a bug—either way, it hurts.
Because seconds can matter, the emergency room doctor doesn’t want to wait until you arrive to start figuring out what’s going on. Luckily for you, the ambulance is connected to a 5G network. The EMT on board dons a haptic glove, and at the hospital, the doctor puts her hand on a joystick.
Just like that, the EMT is putting various amounts of pressure on different points on your abdomen with his gloved hand, guided by joystick movements from the doctor. Thanks to this connection, the doctor can figure out the best treatments for you well before you arrive at the hospital.
Today, ambulances aren’t connected directly to the Internet. But, if you slap some antennas on one, you can turn it into a node in a 5G network and make any ambulance part of the Internet of Things (IoT). Specifically, it would become one “thing” in the emerging, 5G-enabled IoT.
5G networks are now being deployed in countries around the world, often with promises of ultrareliable networks and ultralow latencies. This week at MWC Barcelona 2019 (formerly called Mobile World Congress), I wanted to know what these 5G networks will bring to the IoT that 4G, Wi-Fi, and other wireless technologies can’t provide.
The answer, as it turns out, is a lot, if you’re willing to wait a while longer. And even when the 5G-enabled IoT is here, you’ll probably barely notice it.
Before I go any further, I should probably acknowledge that the IoT is such an astoundingly broad term that it can feel practically useless. Or, as Marianne Laurent, head of marketing for Acklio, a company that builds software for IoT networks, told me, the IoT is more or less a “Wild West.”
Communicating the concept of the IoT at a booth is no easy task. Here’s Ericsson’s attempt to demonstrate a wide variety of potential applications.Photo: Michael Koziol
Within that Wild West, however, we can stake out some general regions of interest. Acklio, for example, primarily builds software for low-power, wide-area networks. LPWA networks, as they’re called, work best for nodes (or devices) spread over a large geographic area that cannot be easily recharged or supplied with power from the grid, like using ear tags to keep track of cattle.
5G is probably not the best option for LPWA networks for a few reasons. First, because it partly relies on frequencies that don’t travel very far, like millimeter waves. And 5G’s emphasis on low latency isn’t really that important for things like tracking cattle herds, where you only need an update every 10 minutes or so, if that.
It could, however, work for networks that are relatively compact—geographically speaking—or that require low latency or high reliability. In fact, one of the biggest potential opportunities for the 5G-enabled IoT is the smart city (another term that often feels as vague as IoT).
Mike Zeto, the general manager of AT&T Smart Cities, says his definition of a smart city, which has changed over time, includes using data proactively. That could mean analyzing feeds from cameras to improve safety in public spaces or keeping an eye on traffic to clear the way for an ambulance with someone who may have a burst appendix.
Regardless of the particular use, the idea is to use large amounts of data gathered by cameras and sensors to make a city’s operations more efficient, without us even being aware of it. You probably won’t notice if you only wait 5 seconds for a green light instead of 10 as these 5G-enabled IoT applications operate in the background.
It will still take some time for these applications to appear, though. Not only do citywide 5G networks need to be in place—which is currently true only for a very small handful of cities—the specifics of the devices themselves need to be sorted out.
Much like augmented and virtual reality, many IoT applications for 5G will need to wait for subsequent releases of the specifications that the telecom industry association 3GPP publishes. Release 15 was the latest to be published, in June 2018, and it covered 5G for smartphones and traditional cellular networks. We’ll have to wait for Release 16—set to be published later this year—and Release 17 for more details about how to approach 5G for all the esoteric devices and applications the IoT can encompass.
But if you want a glimpse of what kinds of things could be possible once those releases are, well…released, here’s one example that highlights what the future might hold.
While at MWC Barcelona 2019, I spoke with Ignacio Contreras, director of 5G marketing, and Danny Tseng, 5G and LTE technical marketing manager, both at Qualcomm, as well as Jane Rygaard, head of marketing for mobile networks at Nokia, and Erik Josefsson, the head of advanced industries at Ericsson.
This robot could someday collaborate with other robots over 5G networks, which will offer faster data rates and lower latency than Wi-Fi.Photo: Michael Koziol
One thing they were all excited about, without fail, was 5G in factories and manufacturing. Keep in mind, one robot is just a robot. But dozens of robots, working on a factory’s assembly lines? That becomes IoT. (I’ve written separately about how 5G will affect the robotics industry.)
In a factory, reliable connections are incredibly important. The last thing you want is a manufacturing robot to make a mistake on an assembly line due to a missed software update. It would delay production, costing countless dollars while the issue is sorted out. Qualcomm’s Contreras and Tseng stressed that one of the most important aspects of 5G will be its ultrareliability—the goal is for 99.9999 percent reliability. (And no, that’s not arbitrary. The target is actually, genuinely, honestly six 9s.)
The first ultrareliable connections in factories will be support the wireless communications between more and more sensors. “That is what I would say comes first,” says Ericsson’s Josefsson. “This is the discussion that’s ongoing: How can I get one sensor per square meter? It’s unrealistic to put cable to all that.”
Then, we could expect factory floors will become more modular, as 5G IoT networks reduce the need for any cabling at all. “Imagine you can just move around your robots and just reconfigure your whole production line,” says Nokia’s Rygaard. “Imagine one day you’re making one product, and you need to change something, you don’t need to wait three months for recabling.”
The final result, years and years away of course, is what Josefsson calls “black factories.” “You’re never going to turn on a light in a factory in the future,” he says, because the manufacturing robots and conveyor belts will arrange themselves.
Long before we reach that point, however, and regardless of what IoT devices are doing on 5G networks, it seems clear that the goal of 5G-enabled IoT projects will always be efficiency, whether that applies to a city’s rush hour traffic or a factory’s assembly process. We probably won’t even notice many of these incremental changes, even as the world around us runs more smoothly.
“The biggest revolutions,” Josefsson says, “you didn’t know them. You just saw them when you looked back.”
Michael Koziol is an associate editor at IEEE Spectrum where he covers everything telecommunications. He graduated from Seattle University with bachelor's degrees in English and physics, and earned his master's degree in science journalism from New York University.