What Will 5G Replace? Understanding Tomorrow’s Cellular Landscape

October 14, 2021

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5G’s lightning speeds, ultralow latency and expanded millimeter wave (mmWave) bandwidth promise to replace current technologies (e.g., Wi-Fi, legacy-wired broadband and cable modems) in the coming years, especially when it comes to IoT networks. 5G will enable a revolution in connectivity. According to a CNET report, 5G can enable several Internet of Things (IoT) use cases (e.g., self-driving cars, drones, etc.) and help them reach their full potential.

5G’s promise may be slower in coming than many would like, particularly in less densely populated areas. It will require a significant investment in infrastructure. 2019 was touted as the year 5G became a commercially viable technology. However, as providers like Verizon debut 5G networks in major U.S. cities, their ability to deploy mmWave coverage to suburban and rural areas is limited. Potential users of 5G IoT networks, like manufacturers and health care providers, will need time to devise sound implementation strategies.

Whether or when 5G will replace current services is not easily answered. There are challenges to overcome, including building enough infrastructure and keeping 5G networks secure. Moreover, North American 5G networks and all but a few pilot markets are using 5G non-stand-alone (NSA) 5G. 5G NSA depends on the underlying LTE core network. Providers plan to move to 5G stand-alone (SA) in the future.

This move will take time. The COVID-19 pandemic slowed rollouts and even delayed the conclusion of 5G standards such as 3GPP Release (Rel) 17. For now, a platform of solutions, including advanced 4G LTE and edge processing, supports the rapid expansion of the connected mobile IoT edge. These technologies will continue operating alongside emerging 5G networks. According to the consulting firm Bloor, 5G networks are not expected to be impactfully deployed at least until 2025.

The Role of Current Networking Standards

While 5G could replace the current cellular standard in IoT development, other technologies (e.g., Ethernet) may continue existing alongside new 5G networks, as Andy Egan, director at Adept IT, predicts. Egan says he expects servers to continue leveraging Ethernet for a long time to come. Laurie Patton, former executive director of Internet Austria, says 5G will not replace fixed broadband services. Instead, they will be complementary.

In the gradual transition to full 5G, other services will advance to meet the demands of expanding IoT. The complementarity of 5G and existing technologies may extend to Wi-Fi as well. Wi-Fi remains a robust wireless solution for a variety of use cases. Despite 5G’s revolutionary potential and the buzz surrounding its application, the Wi-Fi market is expected to grow 21.2% by 2022.

Wi-Fi and cellular will continue complementing each other. Each will become more specialized for cases they excel in addressing and dropping the compromises they have been forced into working. The quality and performance of Wi-Fi will improve. With innovations like Ericsson and Cisco’s “Evolved WiFi Networks (EWN),” 5G may not replace it for some time, if ever.

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5G Innovation in IoT

With IoT uses cases like smart manufacturing, several companies have begun looking at what 5G can replace or start anew. For example, Audi, BMW and Volkswagen have proposed replacing their Wi-Fi and Ethernet networks with private 5G. 5G (or private 5G) will surpass these services in critical ways, making it a far better option for many IoT uses. Such uses include those requiring fast mobility and ultralow latency like manufacturing and health care.

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Those willing and able to invest in infrastructure will be poised to reap a 5G IoT ecosystem’s transformative benefits. Transitioning from NSA 5G to fully independent SA 5G will further unleash the full power of 5G features.

The challenges of scaling 5G infrastructure for massive IoT are several. They go beyond 3GPP’s RedCap and other meticulous standards’ creation efforts to:

  • Ensure interoperability and include creating plans for short- and long-term growth
  • Develop solutions for reducing power consumption
  • Extend the capacity of backhaul networks and the internet to handle the massive data amounts transmitted over 5G networks

Until 5G meets these challenges, we will likely continue seeing LTE, Wi-Fi, Ethernet and other networking technologies advancing alongside. The overall transition will take time. It seems IoT deployments will move toward full 5G while utilizing advances in current wireless and wired networking technologies.

Editor’s Note: This blog was originally published on 4 May 2020 and has since been updated.