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5G Versus the Growth of Satellite, LPWAN: When is 5G Really the Best Option?

Amidst increasingly affordable options for Satellite and LPWAN technologies, when is 5G really the best option for your IoT solution?

Vishal Cherian

By now, you’ve probably heard of the hype. This mysterious new network that has promised to bring about a revolution in connectivity—affecting individuals, businesses, and entire economies. It’s entrance into the public sphere has brought with it considerable acclaim, skepticism, and even a fair share of conspiracy theories. Amongst all this noise, it’s natural to wonder: what exactly is 5G, and how will it affect my business?

According to Qualcomm, the adoption of 5g through 2035 will result in $13.2 trillion dollars of global economic output, 22.3M jobs created, and $2.1 trillion dollars in GDP growth. It is several orders of magnitude faster in speed, higher in bandwidth, and lower in latency than its predecessors. It is also capable of supporting high volume IoT networks by being able to scale down data rates with increased power and mobility. It natively offers licensed, shared, and unlicensed spectrum types and bands (from low bands under 1 GHz to high bands known as mmWave), with better implementation than 4G. 

In the coming decade, the adoption of 5G could span more industries than past generations of networks. It can improve smartphone experiences by making technologies like VR and AR more seamless. Industries that rely on low latency and highly available communication will also benefit from these advances. But perhaps most significant is its effect on IoT. The ability to support more devices streaming data on the same networks, along with all the reasons above, can be a potential boon to companies that need large-scale IoT solutions that are efficient, fast, and reliable. 

While 5G is certain to disrupt the IoT industry, it is important to understand the other types of networks out there and why they may serve as a better choice depending on the solution you want to implement.

Another popular class of networks used in IoT solutions are called Low Power Wide Area Networks, or LPWAN. These networks support smaller data transfers over large geographical areas, making them ideal for solutions involving large amounts of sensors, such as asset tracking, agriculture, fleet management, and smart city applications. Because these networks deal with small amounts of data, each sensor uses much less power, reducing the overhead cost of replacing batteries. You can use your own licensed network to ensure no interference, or try your luck with unlicensed options.

However, with some use cases, you may find yourself in a remote location where you don’t have access to common networks. This can include remote locations like the ocean and mountainous regions, or even rural, sparsely populated areas that lack coverage. In these cases, you may consider using satellite networks. While you do get impressive coverage, these solutions also require high power capabilities and are often more expensive than other solutions. As time goes on, however, costs will continue to decrease as more and more firms are developing infrastructure to support satellite networks. However, they can work great as a compliment to other networks in your solution.

With 5G joining the ranks of LPWAN and satellite connectivity, there’s never been a better time to consider an IoT solution for your business. But which of these networks, or what combination of these, is right for your use case?

Perhaps the best way to answer this question is to look at some ideas already being considered by businesses and governments. 5G offers a much more effective way of connecting things that previously would not be very feasible. For example, imagine a network of self-driving cars communicating with each other to ensure that all drivers get to their destination in an optimal time, while minimizing accidents and traffic. This involves many nodes communicating large amounts of information in parallel. Decisions that take even more than a split second can be disastrous. 

But with the extremely low latency, high bandwidth, and fast speeds of 5G, something like this can actually be possible. Cars are optimal nodes for this kind of network as they are able to supply the power necessary for devices to stay connected and infrastructure can be built alongside the most trafficked highways and cities that can support constant connectivity.

However, there may be times where your nodes are not near these kinds of areas. Imagine you are managing a fleet of deep sea fishing boats and need to monitor their health and location. In this case, satellites would be able to provide coverage when the boats are out in the water, whereas other networks can be used when the boats are on shore, providing you with the best of both worlds.

In some cases, you may not need all the bells and whistles that satellite and 5G have to offer. Perhaps you are more interested in a bigger picture rather than the data of any individual sensor. Or you may care only about the negatives and outliers. 

LPWAN networks could serve you well here. For example, suppose you wanted to keep track of plants on a large farm, and know a few key details like soil moisture, sunlight levels, and temperature.  In cases such as these, you are more interested in the overall system and the problem points rather than the parts of it that are working fine. In addition, only small bits of data need to be sent, but over large areas. These solutions require much less power, and can cover many sensors which, in aggregate, can give you a big picture overview.

5G is poised to rapidly change the IoT landscape. Not only is it faster with lower latency and higher bandwidth than its predecessor, it also supports more devices and promotes higher coverage by natively supporting different spectrum bands. This being said, it is important to understand that 5G is not ideal for all use cases. As always, it is important to define your requirements and use networks that optimize your constraints, rather than taking on a one-size-fits-all approach. Whatever you do end up choosing for your business, it’s an exciting time for IoT and its potential to disrupt new industries in the coming decade will be unprecedented.

Vishal Cherian

Software Engineer I

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