5G – The Future Network for All

29-05-2020 |   |  By Robin Mitchell

As 5G is rolled out worldwide, there is a growing trend for IoT devices to use cellular networks as opposed to other established technologies such as Wi-Fi. Why are cellular technologies so popular, and could all future networks be replaced with cellular technologies?

Current Wireless Solutions

Currently, a device that is required to use wireless communication has a wide range of possibilities, including infrared, Li-Fi, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and cellular. Each technology has its advantages and disadvantages with some having greater rangers (cellular) while others are cheaper to establish (Wi-Fi). Therefore, when choosing a wireless technology, it is essential to consider all environmental and design aspects that could affect the performance of the device and such factors include bandwidth, range, interference, cost, and availability.

But of all technologies that exist, two, in particular, stand out; Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. These two wireless technologies operate near similar frequencies (2.4GHz spectrum) and found in almost all modern mobile and IoT devices. Wi-Fi has the advantage over Bluetooth that its higher transmission power allows for more extended range of operation (up to 100 meters for Wi-Fi compared to 10 meters for Bluetooth) as well as much higher bandwidths. However, the use of greater transmission power means that devices consume more power and therefore drain batteries faster. Bluetooth is ideal for solutions that operate on small batteries and are required to transmit only small packets of data at short distances (this is why IoT designs gravitate towards Bluetooth over Wi-Fi). However, devices utilising Bluetooth require a Bluetooth transceiver (such as a smartphone) to transmit recorded data to in a similar fashion to Wi-Fi devices which utilise a Wi-Fi station. Wi-Fi is an established technology found in many different environments such as homes, offices, and industrial sites, making it the go-to-choice for applications that require networked devices. 

However, cellular technology is being given a serious look over by engineers with signs in the industry, suggesting that technologies such as 4G and 5G may replace Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. What advantages do cellular technologies have over other wireless methods, and what makes them a desirable solution for the future?

5G vs Wi-Fi

To understand the differences between 5G and Wi-Fi, it helps to look at their targeted applications and the features they deploy. Cellular technologies are required to handle thousands of simultaneous calls while also providing internet connectivity at download speeds over 100Mbps. Cell towers, which are responsible for cellular technologies distribution, are also required to have a reasonable range of coverage to minimise the number of towers that are needed to be built. To make the situation more complicated, mobile users are required to be able to move from one cell to another (both of which controlled by different towers), and experience no call drop or data interruption. 

Wi-Fi technologies are required to handle tens of devices around homes and offices with the maximum theoretical number of devices on a single Wi-Fi connection being 255. Since Wi-Fi networks are often private, their range is limited to a room or building, and the limiting of the range also helps to comply with radio transmission laws, as well as reduce interference for other Wi-Fi networks. As most typical Wi-Fi installations have only a single access point, there is no need for automatic network switching when moving to different areas.

At this point, we can now compare cellular to Wi-Fi to see how they stand against each other. 

Factor

Wi-Fi

Cellular (5G)

Range

< 100 Meters

>10KM  

Power

Low

High

Data Rate

>300mbps 

>10gbps

Portability

No

Yes

Roaming

No

Yes


Wi-Fi consumes less power than cellular-based technologies which would be advantageous in applications that rely on portable power sources. However, there is a growing field of IoT devices that do not have portable power sources or have large amounts of power readily available, making Wi-Fi, and other technologies, less appealing. The increasing number of devices at homes, along with advancements in IIoT, are presenting issues with Wi-Fi technologies due to the maximum number of devices able to connect to a single network. This problem is exaggerated as latency and data rates drop significantly as more devices are connected to the same network (this is easily experienced with +20 devices connected to a single Wi-Fi access point).

Why Use Cellular Instead?

Cellular based technologies such as 4G and 5G offer designers a wide range of opportunities not possible with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. With the continuing increase in network coverage, devices can be placed in most locations whether it be on top of a building, in an office room, or a park, and will still receive coverage. If these devices are powered permanently, then the power penalty for using mobile technologies is removed. One area of application that is taking a vital interest in mobile technology is the automotive industry as vehicles that roam from cell to cell need to be able to remain connected, and a large number of vehicles on roads is easily handled with the use of MIMO antenna in cell towers. It is also believed that the low latency and high data rates offered by 5G will allows vehicles to communicate with each other faster than others, such as Wi-Fi.  


Examples of 5G replacement

While 5G is still being introduced globally, it has already started to cause a paradigm shift. One example being Dish Network in America, who have been developing an NB-IoT network for use with IoT devices. The project, which had over $500 million in investment, was cancelled by Dish Network who then suffered a $253 million impairment charge. The reason for this was that Dish Network has changed tact and decided to continue the development and installation of its 5G network who believe that it is the right move. This moves also signifies the importance of removing multiple protocols and connection methods in favour of a single, unified technology.

Another area that is seeing traditional technologies being replaced with mobile technologies is IIoT. While Wi-Fi is perfectly adequate for providing connectivity to a few home devices, it is far from ideal in an industrial setting which may include multiple floors, thickened walls, large buildings, and wide-open spaces between different facilities. Since mobile technologies would be highly beneficial in these applications, some mobile network providers are working with industrial companies to develop private mobile networks. These can allow thousands of devices to connect to a single access point or multiple masts which allow for roaming capabilities. This is especially important in automated transporters that move material and goods from one site to another which require a constant, reliably uplink to a central server.

Conclusion

Currently, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are more than adequate for homes and offices, but the increasing number of devices in industrial sites is already putting a strain on these networks. As IoT devices are continually integrated into everyday life, and the number of internet-enabled devices in homes increases, users will be left with Wi-Fi networks that are unable to handle the quantity of data as well as the number of simultaneously connected devices. Technologies such as 5G offer high speed, low latency connection, and long-range with the ability to roam between network cells, making them an ideal replacement for Wi-Fi. However, future “5G-like” systems may be a miniaturised version of large scale mobile networks with small private networks providing connectivity to all devices in a house utilising multiple small stations connected in a mesh. Unless the fundamentals behind Wi-Fi change, then the future could see the majority of wireless communication handled by 5G systems. 


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By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.

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