The Internet of Things (IoT) is a term that conjures up images of a futuristic world where fridges reorder milk before the last dregs are even drained from the carton, hair brushes and toasters meticulously record every scrap of information they interact with, and everyone is whisked around in self-driving cars, their arrival announced wherever they go to a host of eagerly awaiting smart appliances.
For those who view life’s daily routine as a series of timewasting inconveniences, this IoT future is a gleaming nirvana. However, for the many who regard the rapid pace of technology with trepidation, it marks the start of a slippery slope to a soulless dystopia.
Either way, the finer details of how this sleek, smart world will work in practice have taken side stage to the drama of the overall picture. This won’t be the case for much longer: analyst firm Gartner estimates that by 2020, more than half of new business processes will use the IoT and, as countries jostle to be first to enjoy the economic benefits, implementing the infrastructure to power it will become a major policy focus.
The heralded superfast data transfer, along with the sheer number of connected devices, will require a new generation of mobile connectivity: 5G. The accompanying infrastructure demands may change the the way cities develop.
New world, new wires
To see how 5G will shape the technology of the future, it helps to remember how inconceivable many of the innovations that rely on 3G and 4G seemed until recently; much of the functionality of smartphones we now take for granted was unimaginable less than a decade ago.
Dr Mischa Dohler is an expert on wireless communication technology at King’s College London, and co-author of Internet of Things in the 5G Era: Enablers, Architecture, and Business Models, a paper examining the growing demand for a 5G network and the challenges involved with implementing one.
In an interview with World Finance, Dohler described what he sees as an impending explosion in consumer demand for IoT products: “New technologies need a long time to get off the ground. If you think of mobile phones, we’ve had them since the 1970s, but the first time you used one was probably in the 2000s, so it took 20 or 30 years for mobile phone technology to create enough demand to justify more development.
“Typically, technology goes very slowly until we reach this inflection point, and then it suddenly takes off like crazy. The IoT is not yet there, but we’re getting closer.”
In a sure sign that this inflection point is nearing, demand on the industry side is already strong, according to Dohler: “Particularly for construction, oil and gas, industry has really understood that you can do a lot of great things with the IoT. You can optimise processes, you can figure out whether you’re an efficient industry, an effective industry. In the industry world, it’s an established field which has really taken off.”
The connectivity demands of a world with multiple smart appliances in every home, hoovering up masses of data and in constant communication with each other, require a 5G framework
Besides a push from consumers and industry, for the IoT to become a reality, the existing patchwork of 3G and 4G that currently powers the internet needs a total overhaul. The connectivity demands of a world with multiple smart appliances in every home, hoovering up masses of data and in constant communication with each other, require a 5G framework.
Dohler described the three characteristics that would distinguish this new network: “The first is a higher rate of data download. On the consumer side this would enable things like virtual reality displays on the street. There are also a few industry applications, like self-driving cars.
“The second is low delay: 4G is quite slow when it comes to sending data over an interface. Humans don’t notice, but this matters if you want industry applications coupled with some robotic control.
“The third dimension is the number of devices you can connect to a single base station. On 4G you can connect up to 15,000 devices. For the mean time, we may not need a 5G system that can go up to 300,000 devices, but in 2025 the situation may be very different. We want to prepare for the future.”
Building the 5G world
The promises of this 5G world are enticing, but none of this of will be possible without substantial investments in hardware. All of the innovative features of 5G will be made possible by colonising a fresh band of the electromagnetic spectrum, utilising higher frequency radio waves than those of 3G and 4G.
Much of the behaviour of electromagnetic waves is set by their frequency since this is directly linked to the energy they possess. Differences in frequency explain why microwaves are used to cook food, while visible light allows us to see.
The flipside of frequency is wavelength, which dictates the range of a wave; higher frequency waves have lower wavelength. Hence, the higher frequency waves used for 5G will also have lower wavelengths, which means a shorter range of coverage.
To avoid gaps in service or patchy coverage, Dohler stated that 5G will need many new base stations: “5G requires many more access points because we’re going to be using millimetre wavelength waves. The range is [a lot] like Wi-Fi.
“So how do you provide city-wide coverage with such a short range? Truthfully, the answer is [you can’t], most likely, so we need to be very smart about it. I think the biggest transformation will be going from a network where you have true coverage to a network where you perceive to have true coverage.”
Partly, according to Dohler, this appearance of true coverage could be achieved by boosting internet provision while devices pass through base stations: “I’ll give you a very specific example: if you watch a Netflix video today using a 4G system, it will buffer a little bit in advance, but the moment you are out of 4G range, after 30 seconds the video runs out.
Now, that’s pretty silly, because there’s no reason why we shouldn’t load the entire movie onto your mobile phone while you pass through a 4G hotspot. Then, even though you have no coverage away from the hotspot, you still have the perception you’re connected, because your movie still runs.”
This is only part of the solution, however; for the many instantaneous applications of the internet to run smoothly, a swarm of new base stations would have to infiltrate cities.
The link with lampposts
This poses a difficult infrastructure dilemma for governments and, while the economic benefits of the IoT are many, building a vast network of base stations would prove extremely costly. Not to mention the question of where they would go – with land a premium in crowded urban areas, it is hard to see how governments would find the space.
The UK is an interesting test case of this problem: it is a small but densely populated country with large urban communities and a very advanced and service-dependent economy – one that stands to benefit considerably from faster data speeds.
A report released at the end of 2016 by the National Infrastructure Commission described how, despite being one of Europe’s richest countries, the UK is currently ranked 54th in the world for 4G connectivity, behind countries such as Romania, Albania and Peru. It also stressed the government’s determination to have 5G up and running no later than 2025, to “give British industry every chance to lead the world in exploiting its applications”.
Dohler described one of the solutions to the base station problem that is currently being weighed up by the UK Government: “I gave evidence to the National Infrastructure Commission and told them, ‘If you really want to deblock the coverage and the capacity problem, you need to deregulate street furniture’.”
Street furniture is the umbrella term for publicly owned objects like lampposts, electricity boxes and bridges that speckle urban streets.
Building base stations into these could be a neat solution, especially in cities where such objects are abundant and regularly spaced. However, this would require rethinking regulation, according to Dohler: “[Network operators] would struggle, because they would need to go from board to board getting planning permission, which takes, end-to-end, probably two years or more and costs a lot of money. So the only way of unlocking this now for 5G is to say any street furniture belonging to a public body is public access, so it should be deregulated.”
As well as posing issues with the current regulatory system, using street furniture also raises the question of competition and choice: if one operator buys all of the lampposts in a district, how will rivals compete for the customers who live there? Dohler suggested one possible fix: “These are very early discussions, but the simple solution is infrastructure hardware sharing. Currently there’s a joint venture between O2 and Vodafone in Central London, where they share a base station. It operates on the frequencies of both O2 and Vodafone and separates the traffic.”
Despite the complications, deregulating lampposts is probably the most practically feasible solution, according to Dohler: “The other way is the traditional way. That means operators would need to go pole by pole, owner by owner, rooftop by rooftop, to get permission. That becomes much more expensive and I’m not sure it’s viable from a business point of view.”
He continued: “Unless we use drones – that could be another option, but the skies would be very cluttered and regulation isn’t ready for drones.”
While this world of privatised lampposts and connectivity drones may seem far off, 10 years ago few imagined that today you could fit a supercomputer in your phone.