Judging from the ads on TV and other media sources, one would think that in 2020 the world will be transformed by the magical leap that 5G technology represents. Because we deal in the world of science and facts—not hype—let’s have a gut check on 5G as it affects the solutions we’re developing in 2020.
One may be developing products for which incorporating 5G may or may not make sense. Here are a few questions you should be asking:
What benefit are you getting from 5G?
Many products deploy particular technologies as a differentiator, even if it provides little benefit—do we really need better phone cameras or faster phone processors? In some cases, the market for products is so tight that 5G provides a competitive advantage or merely a means of maintaining technological parity with competitors.
Today, there are many ways to design in wireless communications. As product developers, we’re familiar with common technologies such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and yes, 4G cellular, which isn’t going away any time soon. The vision of 5G is one of increased communications speed and bandwidth. The question remains: For the specific problem being solved, are both characteristics essential?
When do you need those benefits?
Despite all of the hype, 5G isn’t ubiquitous today nor will it become so in the next 12 months. By some estimates, it will be several years before it becomes as widespread as the current 4G network.
So, when building real-world applications in 2020 for near-term deployment, or for the next year or two, it’s important to acknowledge that most applications being created will not recognize the anticipated benefits from 5G. There simply will be no omnipresent 5G infrastructure available to leverage. If your product lifecycle is long, as is often the case in Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) applications, then it might make sense to provision the hardware today for this capability tomorrow.
As engineers, we realize that if we include newly available components in a 2020 design project, those components will not have realized the cost advantages that will incur as the market matures. In addition, if the component doesn’t become adopted, it may go end-of-life within two years of release because sales targets weren’t met. Likewise, challenges will arise when integrating the latest technology into today’s products. We’re all too familiar with why new things are often said to be on the “bleeding edge.” This begs the question: Is there enough benefit to warrant being on that edge?
What should I consider if implementing 5G today?
If the need, or perceived need, is such that 5G must be in the development plan this year, be prepared to weigh the following considerations:
- The range for a tower or cell site will be significantly shorter for 5G than for lower-frequency 4G. If 5G is a key element of success for your application, think about the 5G network density in the target geographic vicinity. It’s one thing for a 5G provider to put a “stick pin” on the map in the vicinity of a 5G site. It’s another thing entirely to have a dense network across a wide area.
- 5G coverage, besides being impacted by the physical distance between cell towers/repeaters, depends on the environment. 5G networks aren’t particularly good at providing coverage when the signal is interrupted by walls, water towers, and other RF propagation barriers.
- Make sure you’re building robust models around power management. Current 5G chipsets draw more power than some other competing technologies. Take measures to assure you have both sufficient battery capacity and well-architected power-management schemas to ensure useful operating life.
- Make sure your project plans allow for the inevitable pitfalls of utilizing any bleeding-edge technology. Early technology adoption inevitably brings implementation challenges such as immature embedded software stacks and the like. Expect to be developing your new product while debugging your supplier’s evolving software-development kits (SDKs) and application-programming interfaces (APIs) in real time. Account for these hiccups in your manpower budgeting and scheduling.
- Be prepared to implement a robust test methodology with which to ensure not only that a few systems prove reliable, but that you’re also ready to accept issues due to manufacturing process variability. These are all “table stakes” points for those of us who have been among the early adopters of the newest technologies.
IoT applications are doing quite well today without the use of 5G, but 5G could certainly bring significant advantages to other situations. In the coming years, as the infrastructure becomes widely deployed and the technology matures, selection of 5G for implementation will make sense for many more applications. However, in 2020, when considering incorporation of 5G, make sure the use case makes sense and that, as engineers, you’re prepared for what could be a bumpy journey along the bleeding edge.
Mitch Maiman is President and Cofounder of Intelligent Product Solutions.