Let's start with 5G, the next-generation standard in cellular connectivity. Among its other potentially revolutionary effects, 5G is going to deliver the “I" to the IoT. It will also change our assumptions about connectivity.
Wi-Fi was designed for computers, and 4G LTE wireless targeted smartphones and portable devices. Both have been tremendously successful — and both were shaped by the devices they were intended for. The same goes for 5G, the first generation of wireless technology designed with extremely small, low-power, and near-ubiquitous IoT devices in mind.
Unlike Wi-Fi and LTE devices, which we handle and plug into power sources on a daily basis, IoT sensors will operate autonomously for years at a time, often in inaccessible places, without recharging or replacement. That means 5G puts emphasis on areas that might surprise you.
Low power: 5G technologies are designed to help keep power consumption low, during transmission as well as when devices are idle. Devices will remain in low-power sleep mode until it's time for them to go to work, receiving authorized network traffic or sending out data from deep within locomotive engines or high atop city light poles.
Smaller designs: There's an emphasis in the 5G ecosystem on keeping radio hardware small, for obvious reasons. In a world of billions of connected sensors, minuteness is crucial.
An explosion of new protocols: The IoT is prompting the development of a number of different 5G communication standards, not just one or two network types. That means there's a real diversity in the world of 5G. Some 5G technologies, such as the ones that will enable autonomous vehicles, are true speed demons. Others are not.
The emerging LoRa wireless networking system, for example, prioritizes long distance, low power, and reliability over speed. LoRa offers speeds comparable to those that old-school modems provided. But that makes it ideal for long-range, high-value, and occasional data transmissions. LoRa is perfect for reading utility meters from a central location, for instance.
The next-generation leap that 5G involves, then, comes not from higher radio speeds but from the ability to exchange data wirelessly and with little energy expenditure across several kilometers. Utilities get a significant productivity boost from being able to read wireless meters from headquarters on demand, instead of having to roll radio trucks through neighborhoods.
We're conditioned to associate "quality connectivity" with "power" and "speed," and to look forward to the 5G era's faster download speeds, among other things. But in the context of 5G's relationship with the IoT, things are little more complicated than that.