Jun 23, 2021

14 min read

How is 5G changing IoT?

The age of 5G is upon us. As of today, a handful of cities in the world are already enjoying this state-of-the-art mobile internet standard. What we’re going to look at in this article is how 5G is going to change the Internet of Things and how we go about incorporating IoT technology in various popular applications.

Let’s face it - 5G is exciting news for a lot of us, just like every new evolution of an existing technological possibility usually is. 5G promises to bring about a paradigm shift in wireless communication. Far from being just an incremental betterment from 4G, it actually is much more like a quantum leap, comparable to say the jump from typewriters to computers. 

Previous generations of mobile internet technology were directed primarily at phones - to be used for your typical applications such as messaging, web browsing and with the more recent interactions, video and audio content consumption. However, 5G is going to be so much more - imagine it more as the fabric that underlies a very vast and intricate ecosystem of smart IoT systems, sensors and computing devices. 

That might sound a bit abstruse so think about it this way - with 5G, IoT technology will finally have the right sort of a framework to truly realise its potential. With 5G, IoT networks will finally be able to be deployed just about anywhere. The insane explosion in connected devices that was predicted a few years ago never quite came to fruition - with the advent of 5G technology that’s all set to change - and how!

According to a study conducted by Gartner, 66% of global businesses have plans to adopt and use 5G technology by the end of this year. That should give some idea about the immense potential that this technology is anticipated to have. 

5G, when implemented in earnest, could offer mind-boggling download speeds and unprecedented levels of stability. And this won’t just be a linear increase. Experts suggest that 5G could offer speeds that trounce those of most hardwired internet connections. Gigabit level speeds that don’t require a wired connection - now that’s exciting stuff. With that kind of promise, it’s not hard to see why 5G technology is attracting the kind of bets it is. 

“MIT Technology Review - estimates that between the years 2020-2035, 5G’s total contribution to the world economy will equal that of the current size of India’s economy - i.e a mind-numbing $3.5 trillion!” 

- MIT Technology Review.

What’s the big deal with 5G?

You might find yourself thinking, “so, i guess it’s a bit faster than 4g. It’s pretty cool that i’ll be able to stream netflix faster but other than that, what’s the big deal?”

That’s an important question to ask to really understand why 5G is attracting the sort of craze and frenzied interest that it is - Firstly, the increase in speed isn’t incremental. That is to say that 5G will, in all likelihood, offer exponentially higher speeds than its predecessors. This means that the benefits of this increase will not just be in terms of doing things a little faster or a little more efficiently - it will mean that we will be able to do things that were previously not possible. 

More than just speed, 5G brings a lot of value to the table - with 5G, we’ll be able to connect more devices to the internet, at once, from the same area. A lot more. Just to give a rough idea, a 5G tower could handle approximately 100 times the number of devices that a 4G tower can. Moreover, 5G towers are extremely small in size (the size of a hotel room mini-bar) compared to 4G towers, which means that more of them can be installed in a given area. In fact, they are so small that they can be installed in previously unimaginable locations - like on lampposts, roofs of shops, well you name it. This will dramatically improve mobile internet coverage.  

In many ways, IoT technology has been straitjacketed by the limitations of 4G networks. With the number of devices 5G networks can handle at once and the incredibly fast and stable connectivity they will offer over wide areas, there is a lot to be excited about. 

What does all this mean for IoT?

Consulting firm Mckinsey reports that every second, 127 new devices are connected to the internet across the globe. That’s a lot of connected devices! And this rate is only set to grow as we step further into this IoT revolution that’s currently underway. 

What’s important to note is that when we talk about an enormous number of devices being connected to the internet, the vast majority of them will not be traditional computing devices such as laptops or phones. These devices will include all manner of objects intended to serve thousands of various functions. Another significant and noteworthy feature of these connected devices will be that a lot of them will be deployed in extremely far flung, remote locations that are not serviceable by broadband.

“Consulting firm Mckinsey reports that every second, 127 new devices are connected to the internet across the globe. That’s a lot of connected devices! And this rate is only set to grow as we step further into this IoT revolution that’s currently underway. ” 

- McKinsey report.

Essentially, this is how the equation is expected to change - the advent of 5G will mean that more IoT devices will have access to high-speed internet over larger areas. Therefore, IoT devices will be able to transmit data faster and will enjoy significantly larger coverage areas. It’s not hard to see why the industry is extremely bullish about 5G. 

It is in this context that 5G promises to be a gamechanger to the world of IoT. Let’s take a look at some of the ways in which 5G is set to transform the IoT landscape. 

Direct Access

Like we’d said earlier, it’s not just about higher speeds. 5G can very well be seen as the next generation in internet technology. Think of how the wi-fi in your home works - your devices, i.e your computer, tablet and smartphone all access the internet through your router, which sends out radio signals. 

With 5G, your devices will be able to connect to your ISP individually and wirelessly. While this may not mean a lot to most consumers, it would be downright incredible from an Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT) perspective. 

Smart manufacturing

Throughout the previous century, the steady shift of manufacturing away from industrialised nations was a major talking point. Labour got prohibitively expensive across the developed world and big players were forced to respond by transferring manufacturing operations to developing economies in Asia and South America. 

But this was not entirely without its own share of problems - For instance, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic demonstrated the perils of the world’s manufacturing being localised to just a few hotspots. 

Thanks to this situation of manufacturing being an extremely contentious issue for most western corporations, they jumped at the idea of a newer, smarter approach to manufacturing - i.e IoT based smart manufacturing. This was essentially a whole new paradigm. A new approach, if you will, to the entire manufacturing industry. Factories could now be populated with super-smart systems that were stuffed to the brim with wireless sensors that would gather enormous amounts of data which would be used to optimise processes, well endlessly. 

It wasn’t a surprise then, to see that corporate giants such as Adidas announced their intention to embrace smart factories and the myriad possibilities of IoT based smart manufacturing. The world of smart manufacturing stands to benefit greatly from widespread availability of 5G technology, both in terms of cost and revenue. 

On the side of revenue, 5G will allow manufacturers to deploy connected devices in previously unimaginable ways and in doing so, create services that were not available in the past. For instance, we could see manufacturing design and maintenance products that could offer improved VR functionalities , that would make for a greater number of accessory products and services in the market. 

On the cost side of things, 5G will enable a greater number of smart factories that use data to increase operational efficiency and reduce costs and energy consumption. Because of the greater coverage area that 5G promises, location will not be as much of a constraint for companies when setting up manufacturing facilities. 

Smart Cities

5G holds enormous potential in taking smart city projects to the next level. Smart cities are essentially based on the idea of a city being a “live” interface with which citizens can interact in real time. The idea is that when the residents of a city are able to participate in a perpetual feedback loop, cities can end up becoming much more livable while also being more energy efficient, clean and safe. 

Several smart city projects around the world already boast of functionality that is very sensible and multifarious as opposed to being gimmicky distractions. However, 5G will take things to a whole new level.

With the speeds and stability that 5G promises, smart cities will be able to offer their citizens functionality that we simply couldn’t even dream about in the past - for instance, fans driving to an important football match could receive live traffic updates and real-time notifications about parking space availability. Now that’s futuristic stuff!

Traffic management could be improved by several orders of magnitude with smarter AI based traffic monitoring systems. Lower peak traffic would translate to indirect economic gains in addition to lower air pollution and lower levels of stress among the population of the city. 

In a nutshell, everything that makes smart cities great as a concept will be supercharged by the widespread adoption of 5G. 

Smart Farming

Farmers around the world are turning to IoT-based solutions to improve their yields and the quality of their crops. Smart farming is quickly becoming one of the most common IoT applications across the world. 

Lack of high speed mobile internet coverage was one of the biggest factors that held back the growth of IoT based smart farming. Agricultural operations tend to be situated in remote areas and have traditionally not enjoyed stable internet access. In many cases, costs are a major issue and installing high-speed broadband connections is just not an option. This especially makes sense considering farmers have to shell out quite a bit of capital installing the IoT system in the first place. 

This is where 5G can really get things moving - With its promise of blazing fast speeds that stretch out to hundreds of miles around towers, the 5G age may finally see IoT based agriculture coming of age. 

Empowering struggling communities

We might not spare them a whole lot of thought but there are vast swathes of humanity that have not yet started benefiting from the incredible leaps we have made over the past couple of decades. 

If you are reading this, you probably know just how revolutionary and transformative an effect the internet has had in your life. The connectivity and access to information that the internet brings is empowering in a way that is simply not comparable to anything else. The internet is the great equaliser in terms of how it practically renders inherited advantages less important, if not irrelevant in many cases. 

However, this can only be true if historically under-served communities have access to the internet. And sadly, in many cases, they simply don’t. For instance, let’s take the case of Native American reservations. Few people know the sorry state of these settlements that are dotted across various parts of the United States. These communities which comprise historic and valiant tribes today wear a sorry look as they struggle to keep their populations away from drugs and alcohol. Not having access to education or quality healthcare, these communities often struggle with crippling poverty that simply breeds more of itself. 

5G could be revolutionary in that it could finally bring high-quality internet access and all the empowerment that goes with it, to communities that have traditionally been “cut-off” from mainstream society. Having access to high-quality internet would carry over into other areas of well0being such as better education and access to healthcare. 

Connected Healthcare

The higher speeds and lower latency that we spoke about may not translate to much real-world value when it comes to youtube or social media. But those precious few milliseconds will definitely assume a life or death importance in the context of robotic surgeries. 

If there is one thing this COVID-19 pandemic has taught us, it is that healthcare as we have known it for many years is long overdue for disruption. Healthcare, even if in it’s principal avatar remains the same, will be forced to diverge in terms of how it interacts with its end-users. 

While the traditional model of providing  healthcare isn’t likely to disappear anytime soon, it might well be safe to assume that it will be supplemented by additional “arms” such as telemedicine or robotic medicine. And this is where  5G comes in. 

The greater bandwidth that 5G offers will enable more of the heavy-lifting done at hospitals sto be distributed across various points in the healthcare system. For example, large files such as PET scans and MRIs can easily be transferred to specialists within a few seconds. High quality streaming can be done from extremely remote locations, connecting patients with much needed expertise. 

Connected vehicles

The automobile as we know it is changing after nearly 125 years of being more or less exactly the same. Automobiles are increasingly turning into computers on wheels. Today, we still have cars that mostly comprise mechanical parts working in tandem, with some technology aid in the form of a sensor suite and a central system that oversees the operation of said suite. 

However, this is all set to change. The cars of tomorrow will largely be run from a centralised system. With the low latency that 5G promises, there will be a lot more scope for bi-directional communication, which will aid this transition. 

There seems to be near unanimous agreement that the future of automobiles lies with autonomous vehicles. These vehicles rely on extremely large amounts of data and on systems that are designed with an aim to intelligently process this information in real time. This is where the ridiculous speeds that 5G enables will come in handy. Empowered by 5G, autonomous vehicles will literally be able to see better, in real time and make better decisions. 

Exciting Times Ahead

Only the future will be able to tell us just how much of a stir the 5G revolution will cause and just how much it will alter the fabric of our lives. One thing seems certain however - more possibilities. 5G will prove to be a major landmark in our inexorable path towards a hyper-connected world where there is simply no line between the internet and real life. 

The rate at which technology is accelerating can be a bit dizzying at times. There’s every reason to be apprehensive about the direction in which we are headed. But here’s the thing - the die has been cast. The rubicon has well and truly been crossed. All that’s left for us to do now is to take collective responsibility to ensure that we use these tremendous possibilities for the betterment of our world. Here’s to an exciting future!

About the author

Abishek Swaminathen

Senior Content Manager

Abishek is ONiO’s senior content manager. A medical doctor by profession, he stumbled onto a writing career almost by accident, as it were. Words have enthralled Abishek since the day he first held a book and at ONiO, he channels his inner wordsmith towards providing our subscribers with regular doses of fun and informative content.

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