Cellular companies, startups square off over 5G and the IoT

LAS VEGAS -- The emergence of the Internet of Things is pitting incumbent mobile network operators and infrastructure vendors against a small army of upstarts hoping to leverage newer, alternative technologies and business models created specifically for M2M and other non-consumer use cases. And that conflict was on display at FierceWireless's panel on 5G and the IoT this morning.

While traditional wireless networks have evolved to meet the data-heavy demands of smartphone and tablet users, many IoT devices will require low-data connectivity that may not even be continuous. Such devices may only need access every few days or weeks, and could stay in the field for years at a time without being touched by human hands.

Traditional cellular companies say those concerns could largely be addressed through 5G technologies, which will leverage various flavors of LTE that are in development, among many other things. But others disagree, saying other wireless technologies are better suited for such scenarios.

"The vast majority of IoT devices don't have a lot of data needs," said John Horn, CEO of Ingenu, which offers a service based on RPMA, a technology built specifically for M2M use. "If you need high-bandwidth data, go to 4G, 5G, 6G, whatever comes next."

Part of the reason traditional cellular networks aren't suitable for the IoT is a simple matter of economics, Horn argued. While building expensive base stations is suitable for mass-market use, many IoT applications are emerging in unpopulated regions. Those scenarios call for low-data networks that can be built affordably and quickly as the cellular industry continues to develop 5G technologies and standards.

"5G is going to do a lot, but the IoT is already here," Horn said. "And it's exploding like crazy."

But the IoT is already generating a mind-boggling array of devices and services, noted Cameron Coursey, AT&T's vice president of product development for the IoT. And just like consumers in the grocery store can choose which kind of milk they want for their specific tastes and purposes, users of IoT services will require a variety of choices of devices and technologies.

Proponents of cellular technologies also said that unlike previous generational evolutions, 5G will be an outgrowth of 4G and will be highly integrated. That integration will include newer versions of LTE and will leverage the emergence of software-defined networking and network function virtualization.

"5G is not going to be a replacement for 4G; it will be built upon 4G," said Glenn Laxdal, CTO and head of strategy for Ericsson North America. "LTE is 4G but will play a big role in 5G."

Representatives of the cellular industry agreed, however, that the rise of the IoT will call for business models that a very different than today's plans that are built on the amount of data and voice used, often broken down by device. In fact, new business models and services may be what T-Mobile CEO John Legere hinted at recently when he recently promised to "disrupt" the IoT market.

The Internet of Things "changes the business model," said Rusty Lhamon, director of M2M and IOT for T-Mobile, declining to discuss what potentially disruptive plans Legere referred to. "How to make that more efficient is one of the things we're really looking at."  

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