When 5G arrived, it was expected to be a critical spark for the Internet of Things, but that hasn’t been the case. While 5G has been used in other arenas, it’s been a slow go for IoT-centric enterprise applications such as health-related wearable devices, asset tracking, surveillance and security, and industrial IoT networks, Network World reports.
“In terms of latency and bandwidth, the vast majority of IoT devices do not need 5G,” Jason Leigh, research manager, 5G & Mobility Research for IDC, told Network World. “5G is like a Ferrari engine, but most cars don’t need a Ferrari engine.”
Additionally, 5G’s advanced capabilities come at a cost that many IoT use cases cannot afford.
The solution could be on the horizon however, with an upcoming 5G specification called New Radio Reduced-Capability (RedCap) devices. This specification is designed specifically for IoT devices and is expected to be approved within a year. It comprises a combination of capabilities that consider factors like coverage and throughput with issues such as limited battery life and antennas. This combination also supports use cases that might not require the current 5G tech’s high-performance capabilities, but would scale faster over advanced cellular networks.
“A major reason the adoption of 5G in the IoT space has been slow is because legacy technologies work just fine for many of these use cases,” Leigh told Network World. “If connectivity options like Wi-Fi and legacy 3G, LTE are working, there’s no real incentive to change, and while 3G has been phased out in the U.S., in much of the world it still dominates.”
Once RedCap is deployed, the hope is IoT networks can leverage the increasing scale of 5G deployments. If so, IoT would be made possible in more locations and for more devices. RedCap could make it easier for device manufacturers to prioritize low power consumption, given that a lot of constrained IoT devices have fewer on-device abilities.
While RedCap appears poised to give IoT devices a boost, it’s not without its challenges, Network World reports. For example, RedCap will require operators to deploy 5G Standalone (SA), which is a minority of 5G deployments. Most 5G networks are non-standalone (NSA), which typically combine 5G radio access gear and 4G infrastructure.
However, as 5G SA expansions increase, RedCap looks to be a critical bridge between “legacy connectivity and standardized all-5G ecosystems.”
RedCap is already being tested
5G Advanced might be months away from being recognized as a fifth generation of wireless specification, but mobile networks and operators are already putting it to the test, Network World reports. Companies like AT&T, Nokia, Ericsson and MediaTek are testing pre-5.5G devices, infrastructure and networks.
For example, AT&T tested 5G RedCap data cells in its lab and from the field with its newly deployed 5G SA network. The test included chipmaker MediaTek’s RedCap platform, which connected to Nokia’s AirScale radio access gear and then on AT&T’s 5G SA network core.
“5G RedCap is designed for devices currently served by LTE CAT-4 but provides equivalent or better in performance, with up to 150 Mbps theoretical maximum downlink throughput,” Jason Sikes, AT&T’s AVP Device Architecture, wrote. “It helps reduce the complexity, cost and size of 5G devices. It also introduces options to allow devices to operate at lower power levels.”
Additionally, 5G RedCap will be able to provide connectivity to consumer wearable devices that are cost sensitive and space constrained. Sikes noted a 5G RedCap core design has a maximum bandwidth of 20 megahertz with a single carrier and won’t need to aggregate multiple carriers together, allowing for simpler and smaller antenna designs with one transmitter and one or two receivers.
RedCap’s future potential
A key benefit of 5.5G, it can be deployed as a software upgrade, Network World reports. This is the result of early 5G deployments being designed so they could be upgraded in the future through software patches, according to Leigh. This means 5.5G could accommodate current LTE infrastructure. Meanwhile, if lower-cost devices can eventually handle better connectivity, RedCap could create a boost that could embed ID tags or hard hats for geofencing. Additionally, devices wouldn’t lose connectivity if they left a facility, which would happen with Wi-Fi.
“Spectrum is the life blood of the industry, and if we start talking about 6G, where will that spectrum come from?” Leigh asked. 6G spectrum will most likely come from shutting down legacy cellular connections. “We’re talking about sunsetting LTE worldwide, but in the U.S., it was painful to shut 3G down. RedCap is a necessary part of the long-term migration to a common mobile ecosystem.”