An article by Jouni Mikkonen, Head of Product and R&D at Wirepas.
What is non-cellular 5G?
I suppose most readers are familiar with the cellular generations’ acronyms 2G, 3G, 4G, and 5G. These label generations of cellular technology that have been defined by the cellular community and approved by ITU-R as part of each generation. Cellular technologies in generations 2G-5G have mainly been an evolution of requirements for mobile phone driven use cases.
IoT has been recognized as a new growing opportunity and thus ITU-R defined requirements to be met with the 5G family of standards for this domain. More specifically, the requirement is to support 1 million IoT nodes within one square kilometer. ETSI DECT2020 NR – wireless mesh approach did meet these criteria easily. Hence, ITU-R approved the first non-cellular technology to be included in the 5G – ETSI DECT2020 NR.
When discussing 5G, some may expect full interoperability between cellular and non-cellular technology. It is paramount to understand that also 2G, 3G, 4G, and 5G are not interoperable at the radio interface. Every time a significant step is taken forward, compatibility is sacrificed to make a big impact. Different cellular radio access generations are supported in the backend and these different generations are implemented in the same mobile phone handheld. Interoperability is achieved by using earlier generations as a fall-back both in the cellular operator backend and the handheld.
Similarly, the first non-cellular 5G is a significant disruption. Cellular and non-cellular 5G radio interfaces are not interoperable. Instead, they both could be implemented in the same unit and the data is relayed on the application layer from one network to another and/or combined in the backend. Examples of this could be the cases where data is collected into the backend via cellular 5G and non-cellular 5G radio networks. Another example of co-use is when the non-cellular 5G traffic is routed from a gateway to the backend via a 5G cellular network.
ITU-R took a great decision to adopt this disruptive wireless mesh technology as part of the 5G. It is important to understand that each technology within 5G family has a clear role and benefits. These technologies are not interoperable at the radio access layer. They enable different use cases. Having a wireless mesh network part of 5G is the biggest new differentiating factor in 5G… In my opinion.
Why non-cellular 5G IoT?
While it is entirely possible to connect IoT devices on a limited scale and relay data via mobile operators’ 5G cellular data connectivity, the non-cellular 5G offers many new opportunities such as the massive capacity, flexible coverage, and density of nodes. The cellular 5G has challenges in the IoT domain. Jussi Numminen talks more widely about these – see blog: Wirepas. In short, the challenges that are already raised with cellular-based IoT solutions are :
Cellular 5G requires a lot of infrastructure, tower sites, and antennas, physical SIMs, and equipment.
Subscription is required to operate and cellular 5G was built for mobile phones and consumer use cases.
Non-cellular 5G IoT is a wireless mesh network, where the network is extended per each added IoT node. One could even imagine that each node is a “local base station”. These nodes are making independent decisions to either just join the mesh network or to extend the network by routing also other nodes’ traffic. This removes the need for network planning and the demand for a party to manage the network.
The final point I wish to add here is the data ownership. When a cellular operator builds the infrastructure and operates the network, it means that you have to trust all your data to pass within the operator network. This can be avoided with the non-cellular 5G. Mesh network is autonomously managed and you can own and control who has access to your data. There are no middlemen in between. While this is not relevant in all the use cases, there is an increasing number of cases, where the data is sensitive and it needs to stay in a closed, private data network and “not leave the building”. Recent global crises have put more weight on this type of consideration in strategic sensor locations such as electrical power stations.
5G IoT Radio
The radio technology for the 5G IoT (DECT2020 NR) is a mesh radio and I would claim that in this domain the only mesh network with a modern radio link technology! In my past working history within wireless, I’ve seen similar radio link technology modernization steps already taken both in the cellular and the Wi-Fi domains. It is time to bring wireless mesh radio technology to the same level. While Bluetooth and sub-gigahertz technologies mostly operate on a cellular technology equivalent of 2G, the 5G IoT is built with the technologies adopted already in cellular for the 4G and 5G. The non-cellular 5G adopts the innovations proven within the cellular (and Wi-Fi) domain, such as OFDM (Orthogonal Frequency Division Modulation) and HARQ (Hybrid Automatic Repeat reQuest).
What is then the impact of adopting these latest technologies? The following picture shows a quick overview of the 5G IoT radio performance against the sub-gigahertz and 2.4 Bluetooth radio. In short, 5G IoT radio combines the best features of both sub-gigahertz and Bluetooth radios. 5G IoT radio can reach comparable distances with sub gigahertz but with 10x data rates. When compared with the 2.4GHz, with adaptive modulation and coding, it is possible to either enjoy double the range with the same data rate or triple the range with the same data rate as 2.4 GHz! With the capability to adjust dynamically data rate, as well as transmit power, the link performance improvements can be turned to reduce the power consumption when the full data rate or link distance is not needed.
The final advantage over the other existing mesh services is the technology-specific dedicated frequency band for DECT2020 NR. Technology-specific frequencies provide the best capacity for operation and our system can operate without duty cycle limitations. Furthermore, 5G approval has enabled an even wider range of frequencies that can be used, as the demand increases and the chipsets evolve forward.
To summarize, I predict that 5G IoT will be driven and ultimately defined by the new non-cellular 5G part rather than incremental improvements on the cellular side. The non-cellular 5G is a new, disruptive, and powerful wireless mesh networking solution based on the ETSI DECT2020 NR standard. This will enable totally new use cases to emerge and enable more nodes connected far beyond cellular technology capability. The 5G label means it is part of the global 5G family and proven by the industry community to meet the agreed set of requirements for the massive density of IoT devices. It has a dedicated frequency band to operate without duty-cycle limitations and interference. The non-cellular 5G IoT provides new opportunities to manage your own data economically. The mesh technology makes every node a base station to extend coverage.