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5G and IoT: A global perspective on connectivity and security


The Internet of Things (IoT) has been steadily advancing over the last decade, characterised by an ever-increasing number of devices under management, maturing platforms, and new applications. However, IoT has not had the transformative impact that many thought it would have had by now. This is partly due to the global roll-out of 5G infrastructure which has been anything but uniform. It is in counties where Stand-Alone (SA) 5G networks proliferate where there has been a significant leap forward in IoT deployments. These countries provide an insight into the real potential of IoT.

Borje Ekholm, CEO of Ericsson, highlighted this disparity at Deutsche Telekom’s Digital X conference in October 2023. He contrasted the rapid rollout of 5G SA infrastructure in China—a strategy that has accelerated the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)—with Europe's more tentative steps characterised by Non-Stand Alone (NSA) implementations. While the latter delivers a fraction of what 5G can deliver, the former unlocks its full potential. Ekholm argued that the lack of a conducive policy framework in the EU and its member states is a bottleneck that could slow not only the growth of 5G but also the disruptive sectors dependent on it, such as artificial intelligence and the metaverse. This divergence has resulted in a two-paced race to unlock the full potential of IoT – those countries accelerating SA deployments, and those still predominantly reliant on NSA infrastructure.

To grasp the implications of these differing approaches, it is important to understand the distinctions between SA and NSA architectures. SA operates on an independent 5G RAN with a 5G core, offering considerable improvements in speed, latency, and connectivity—qualities essential for the advanced applications of IoT. In contrast, NSA uses existing 4G LTE infrastructure, including the core network, to support 5G frequencies, a lower cost but less effective alternative. The differing architectural approach not only affects the performance capabilities of networks but also the scope of innovation and economic opportunities that they can support.

The positive correlation between 5G network performance/ availability and IoT deployments is evident in several counties that have focused on building out SA networks. South Korea is often cited as having the widest coverage and best performing SA network whilst Japan has invested in replacing 4G networks with 5G base stations. The momentum of 5G deployment in China offers an insight into the future of IoT and its dependencies on advanced network infrastructures.

China’s 5G Roll-Out and Growing IoT Network

China Mobile, the largest mobile operator in the nation, has an ambitious strategy that underscores China’s commitment to leading in the digital age. In their 2023 annual report released in March 2024, China Mobile reported that it is now operating a total of 1.94 million 5G base stations, an increase of 480,000 from the previous year. Notably, 620,000 of these are 700 MHz base stations, specifically designed to enhance coverage and penetration, critical factors for IoT connectivity in rural and urban environments. This substantial investment in 5G SA infrastructure by China Mobile not only provides the backbone for high-speed, low-latency networks but also sets the stage for a revolution in IoT applications. The enhanced capabilities of these networks facilitate the mass deployment of technologies and services—from smart city applications that manage everything from traffic to energy use, to advanced industrial automation that promises greater efficiency and reduced operational costs.

In addition to expanding its physical network infrastructure, China Mobile has established the world's largest RedCap commercial network, highlighting their strategy of embracing device diversity within the IoT ecosystem, providing tailored connectivity solutions that meet the varied demands of different IoT applications. RedCap stands for "Reduced Capability" and are part of the 5G New Radio (NR) specifications designed to cater to devices that need more capabilities than those offered by ‘Massive IoT’ technologies but do not require the full capabilities of typical 5G devices. These are mid-range devices in terms of data throughput, latency, and power consumption.

Ericsson expects that RedCap will accelerate the adoption of IoT use cases related to wearable medical devices, video surveillance, industrial sensors, and smart grids. “The introduction of RedCap will enable a single network, i.e., a 5G standalone network consisting of both RAN and core network, to address a variety of use cases for industry digitalisation and business transformation. Furthermore, RedCap will help expand the 5G ecosystem and connect significantly more devices to 5G networks.”

China Mobile’s city innovation initiative demonstrates the company’s commitment to urban IoT integration, serving as living labs for emerging technologies such as smart grids and autonomous public transport systems. These cities are set to become benchmarks for global smart city initiatives, highlighting how 5G can facilitate a new era of urban management and services.

The launch of the world's first 5G new voice network and ongoing research into 5G-Advanced technologies underscore a commitment to not only enhancing current capabilities but also pioneering future applications. From multi-carrier aggregation improving network robustness to AI-empowered systems that adjust network parameters in real-time, these innovations support a broad spectrum of IoT functionalities, making vast, interconnected networks more viable and effective.

Two further Chinese MNOs also highlight the transformative effect of 5G SA on IoT and the resulting expenditure on cybersecurity. China Telecom's recent financials highlight the growing impact of IoT and IoVT (Internet of Video Things) on industries. Company IoT revenues increased by 48.3% in 2023 whilst IoVT grew at 29.7% during the same period. The company's digital industry business is built on an expansive 5G deterministic network that extends over 2,700 factories, delivering specific levels of bandwidth, latency, reliability, and availability, which are crucial for applications requiring highly predictable and reliable communication services. Their proprietary industrial Passive Optical Network (PON) technology has advanced to Level 4 autonomy, indicating a high degree of automation and intelligence in network operations. This facilitates a seamless, reliable, and efficient communication backbone critical for modern industrial applications where minimal latency and maximum reliability are critical.

China Unicom reported in March 2024 that both the IoT and cybersecurity business grew significantly in 2023. IoT terminal connections increased by 28%, rising from 385.5 M to 493.9 M, whilst cybersecurity revenues grew from USD 112 M to USD 238 M. Although the cybersecurity revenues are not exclusively related to the IoT business, there is a link between them and underscores the growing requirement in China to secure devices and networks.

The Global Implication and the Road Ahead

Investment in 5G SA and IoT in China highlights a broader global trend: the expansion of IoT is inextricably linked to the advancements in network technology. As 5G SA networks proliferate, they enable a richer, more capable IoT ecosystem that is transformative across industries. The earlier insights point to a simple correlation—increased connectivity begets increased IoT deployment and a requirement for cybersecurity. However, the story is more nuanced when we consider the varying paces and strategies of different nations.

India for instance, is advancing its 5G SA rollout with an expectation that it will drive regional IoT growth, while the United States continues to build upon its existing technological leadership, transitioning to 5G SA though this will take time. As has already been stated, countries leading in 5G SA are likely to experience accelerated IoT growth, reaping early benefits in efficiency, data analytics, and economic gains. Those that lag may adopt different strategies, leapfrogging stages of network development or forming alliances to compensate for slower starts. Even though there will be varying approaches to 5G SA deployments, the global trajectory is towards more pervasive and intelligent IoT networks. While the path of each country may diverge, the collective journey is towards more interconnectivity.

What does this mean for cybersecurity? WA’s forthcoming research on IoT Cybersecurity shows a positive correlation between the scale of 5G SA network deployments, IoT maturity and increasing levels of cybersecurity. However, different risk profiles, regulation and cybersecurity maturity means that the expenditure pattern is not entirely aligned with the 5G SA network and IoT deployment story. Nevertheless, investment in securing IoT networks will continue to grow across regions as asset owners focus on establishing device trust, improving asset management, and ensuring protection of data at the edge and to the cloud.

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