Internet of Things

June 26, 2023  |  Mark Hillary

The last time I visited London in November 2022 I noticed that it was very rare to get a 5G phone signal. Most of the city was still using 4G. This felt unusual to me at the time as 5G has been normal across Sao Paulo for about a year now. I rarely drop down to 4G and 3G is now almost unusable as apps are built for faster data transmission speeds now.

But I have recently noticed a lot of talk about when 6G will arrive. The problem is that 5G remains in its infancy in many locations and there is no ‘killer app’ yet for 6G. Telecoms analyst Joe Madden suggested that there is still no detailed explanation of the need for 6G – we can only predict how data use will change.

Madden describes in some detail that as we start pushing against the laws of physics and what we can do with radio signals then our motivations will start changing. Instead of focusing on coverage, speed, and capacity we may need to shift emphasis onto the value being created for users – how do we deliver a mobile telecoms service at a much lower cost than is possible today?

In the past, each time we heard about a new iteration of cell phone technology the focus for most journalists was on the available network speed. This may be changing for 6G in future, but importantly it already has changed for 5G.

There were two really important killer benefits that meant 5G was an important advance on 4G - beyond just the speed of the network alone.
  1. Being able to maintain a far more reliable connection without dropouts. These tiny dropouts don’t matter during voice conversations because humans can’t detect a break in the line, but for high speed data transfers they are really important – just imagine a surgeon operating a robot remotely and the line keeps dropping.
  2. Number of connections. 4G had a fairly low number of devices that could all be using the same cell tower. If you have ever tried using data when at a rock concert you will be aware of this – often your device can’t connect because there are too many other devices around.

These improvements really created the possibility for the widespread adoption of the Internet of Things (IoT) and digital twins. With 5G sensors it is possible to transmit real-time data from buildings or vehicles instantly – there are no longer concerns about connectivity or the reliability of a connection.

But although case studies are out there showing how the IoT can be a really valuable tool for agriculture, plant management, and utilities, it hasn’t really taken off yet. I certainly expected to see more examples of these solutions by now – I was writing about them in my Digital CEO book and that was published in October 2021.

Some commentators are saying that we are expecting too much too soon. The business case and case studies for IoT solutions are out there, but there are still many pockets of the world where 5G signals are still unreliable – it’s like 5G still has training wheels.

I think my experience in London supports this idea. If a major developed city in the UK still has patchy 5G then the experience in rural areas of the countryside where agriculture solutions might work well is likely to be even worse.

I do believe we will see many more IoT and Digital Twin solutions in the near future, but we need to get the basics right first. Why talk about the opportunities for 6G when a 5G rollout is yet to be completed in many important areas?

When 5G is more ubiquitous and reliable, then I believe many of these solutions will naturally start arriving. IBA Group has some interesting case studies for power line management, railway services, and warehouse control – all existing projects that will become more common as the basic infrastructure is upgraded.

The IoT has been coming soon for a long time, but I believe that this time we are almost there.

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