by Terry Edwards, Engalco Research
The Internet of Things (IoT) continues to represent one of the most influential developments of the 21st century, enabling people to remotely control items in their homes as well as providing the major fabric toward the next industrial revolution: “Industry 4.0.” One year back MPD carried an article focusing on the IoT and related sensors1. More recently, it has become clear there remains a lot of confusion regarding IoT-related communications networks. The purpose of this present article is to highlight the place of both 5G and Wi-Fi 6 in support of the IoT.
Current Expectations for the IoT
IoT networks can be classified into three main types: cellular, short-range and wide area. Overall, by year 2027 over 36 billion connections are forecasted to be in place. How these connections will be classified is shown in Figure 1 (data was obtained from a variety of sources).
Short-range connections are particularly important within homes, manufacturing plants and warehouses (e.g. Amazon).
In Reference1 the importance of the Industrial IoT (IIoT) is emphasized and it is vital to bear this in mind because of the fundamental (global) impact on future economies. Figure 2 shows how the IIoT is a part of the overall IoT the data is approximate.
Often called the “most revolutionary” advance in communications technology, 5G is now a “cry”which is likely well known to most people around the world. Networks are now in place in many countries and dramatic growth is anticipated for 5G networks over the years ahead. Forecasts for small-cell 5G networks are shown in Figure 3 (TAMs: total addressable markets).
Data towards generating Figure 3 was first obtained from several sources, but all had originally been generated before the Covid-19 pandemic. The data applying to year 2020 was moderated downward and the growth into year 2021 has also been slowed allowing for the economic downward pressure exerted by the pandemic. However, very strong growth is forecasted from 2022 onward.
Interesting and helpful information can be found on Ericsson’s frequently updated website2. In the latest release of this website, it is indicated that almost two-thirds of the global population will likely be 5G-connected by year 2025. The current release of specifications by the 3GPP group for 5G NR (“New Radio”) is release 16. Release 17 is expected early in 2021. These releases indicate in detail the industry verticals being addressed by 5G (Release 16 cited five such verticals). It is vital to appreciate that the most important major underlying feature of 5G is dynamically-controlled software as a powerful enabler, augmented by artificial intelligence (AI). Dynamic network slicing is one good example (the adaptive, automatic capability of a network to uniquely connect using appropriate systems and applications1).
5G frequency channels vary—depending mainly on the country concerned and the frequency (and bands) auctioned off to the communication service providers (CSPs) or private network operators. 3.5 GHz, 5 GHz or 6 GHz are commonly encountered. The preferred modulation scheme selected is usually orthogonal frequency division modulation (OFDM), which provides a good spectral efficiency of about 30bps/Hz. Signal transmission rates are as high as several Gb/s.
Wi-Fi uses unlicensed spectrum and is freely available for anyone who has a router—almost all routers embody Wi-Fi transceivers. The user’s Internet service provider (ISP) delivers to the local point-of-presence (POP; commercial or domestic), ensures the signal is fed to the router and thereafter the Wi-Fi radio signal is available. One potentially major issue is a relatively low-power Wi-Fi RF signal (or an inefficient antenna) from the router which can result in unavailability for devices such as laptops or tablets around the local area. The writer has direct experience with this frustrating issue. Even so, the future for “all Wi-Fi” looks very bright, with the numbers of users globally approaching six billion by the late 2020s (Figure 4).
Earlier Wi-Fi signals were centered on the 2.4 GHz industrial band, but this is now very crowded. Standards for Wi-Fi have evolved over many years and have recently reached the Wi-Fi 6 release, which represents a major advance. In particular, Wi-Fi 6 (utilizing its maximum configuration)3 has the following characteristics:
- It is centered on 5 GHz (much less crowded than 2.4 GHz)
- Uses a bandwidth of 160 MHz
- Employs a feature known as BSS Coloring to “colorize” data from each POP
- Adopts 1024-QAM modulation (compare OFDM for 5G, see above)
- Supports fast data rates (up to 10 Gb/s)
- Embodies eight antennas
Wi-Fi 6 can also be operated adopting a reduced specification3:
- Using a bandwidth of 40 MHz
- Adopting 256-QAM modulation
- Supporting data rates up to 230 Mb/s
- Embodying only one antenna
In the reduced-spec case, relatively low-power and smaller devices can be served.
Wi-Fi 6 will increasingly invade the entire Wi-Fi space so that by 2027 most installations (Figure 4) will adopt this standard. The total addressable market (TAM) will amount to about $30B in 2027.
5G and Wi-Fi 6
Considering the information presented above, it should be clear that we all need both 5G and Wi-Fi 3,4. Wi-Fi 6 is increasingly being adopted by companies operating factories and warehouses demanding extensive and concentrated networks—more and more supported by AI and robotics, i.e. Wi-Fi 6 is well-suited to IoT requirements.
However, 5G will also be needed to communicate between Wi-Fi networks—using its powerful digital capabilities such as network slicing.
1. Terry Edwards, “The Internet of Things (IoT): Basics, Expectations & Sensors,” MPD, November 2019, pp105-106.
3. Richard Edgar, “Wi-Fi 6 is Set to Change the Future of IoT Here’s Why,” Microwaves & RF, August 2020, pp16-18.
4. Simon Hill, “5G vs Wi-Fi How They Differ and Why You’ll Need Them Both,” May 22. 2020. Accessible on link: