Smart trash cans, connected cobblestones, communicating cars, now even some toothbrushes can go online – the Internet of Things is expanding daily. And, just like people, these things are not all the same. They, too, place different demands on the digital infrastructure.
When it comes to smart vehicles, latencies cannot be small enough if potential hazards are to be recognized before humans become aware of them. In telemedicine, minimal latency is also crucial to the safety of patients being monitored remotely. In each of these scenarios, data is transmitted reliably and with extremely short delays (latency) over the mobile data network. This type of connection is called "real-time communication". According to the LTE mobile communications standard, "real time" corresponds to a latency of below 100 milliseconds – or faster than the blink of an eye. As LTE has evolved, latency has been brought down even further, to below 20 milliseconds.
Safer connected cars
Deutsche Telekom, Continental, the Fraunhofer-Institut ESK, and Nokia achieved speeds comparable to this in a pilot project conducted with the connected car on the A9 freeway between Munich and Nuremberg using Mobile Edge Computing technology. MEC sends data to the nearest mobile base station only, where they are processed and sent no further. Short propagation delays of below 20 milliseconds are already making safety functions possible for the connected car. But it gets even better.
5G breaks the one-millisecond barrier
By 2020, LTE is to be phased out and replaced with the next-generation communications standard, 5G. But with the meshing of the fixed and mobile networks into a brand new type of network architecture in the intervening years, it will no longer be called a mobile communications standard. 5G can bring response times down even further to under a millisecond, which Deutsche Telekom demonstrated back at the start of 2016 with the world's first end-to-end system. The company's 5G:haus innovation lab is testing potential technologies for this new generation together with a range of partners including institutes, universities, start-ups and established suppliers of network infrastructure technology. The aim is to find a global 5G standard that yet again outstrips the benefits of LTE in specific scenarios: with 1,000 times greater capacity, 10 times higher transmission speed, and 10 times lower latencies. But it is not these numbers that make the difference. The crucial distinguishing feature of the 5G era will be the ability to meet the most comprehensive demands efficiently and reliably using virtual network sections on one single infrastructure.
Virtualization is the key
The 5G:haus is lighting the way with its fully functioning end-to-end 5G system. The system uses virtualization technologies to make the core network and mobile access to it fully programmable and therefore agile. It allows multiple virtual networks to run on the same infrastructure in parallel. These are called "network slices," and the principle itself "network slicing". It specifies the topology, protocols and network resources to be used. In this way, for example, one virtual network slice can guarantee real-time communication, while the other transmits large volumes of data in record time via the same infrastructure. As a result, the network changes its characteristics like a chameleon.
The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), a global standardization committee, began defining the new technologies for radio access, along with an access-independent, highly flexible core network, in 2016. Deutsche Telekom will officially start offering the first 5G services starting 2020.
Energy savings also in the spotlight
Whereas the connected car is reliant on the smallest possible propagation delays for maximum safety, the connected car park is reliant on a long lifespan for maximum efficiency. The same applies to smart metering, which also has the problem that a mobile connection is not always possible. Gas and water meters are usually found in basements, where stone and concrete walls pose problems for radio signals. A radio module with improved building penetration and longer-lasting signal is needed - and no external power supply if possible. Because who wants to be constantly having to change their meter battery? To overcome this, battery-operated connected "things" will in the future be based on the new narrow-band Internet of Things (NB-IoT) radio technology.
NB-IoT is the technology of choice for all cases that demand long range, low power consumption and low costs. With a coverage gain of 20 decibels on GSM, NB-IoT modules also enable wireless connections to basements and underground parking garages. At the same time, their energy requirements are minimal, because they only transmit small data packets in long intervals. As a result, a standard battery can last for up to ten years. "With a range of more than ten kilometers, NB-IoT is also ideal for tracking containers or monitoring livestock in agriculture," says Alexander Lautz, responsible for machine-to-machine (M2M) communication at Deutsche Telekom. An added benefit is that the radio modules can be produced very economically.
Standardization almost ready
Now that the technology has been developed, Deutsche Telekom is about to implement it: Following a very successful test in fall 2015, the company is playing a leading role in the 3GPP initiative working toward standardization. When that is achieved, NB-IoT can be rolled out across the board. In the year 2024, almost 14 percent of M2M communication connections will use this type of technology, according to a forecast from the Machina Research market research company.
Many of these connections, for example in the field of smart home or smart factories, will also use local-area technology such as Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. These technologies consume more energy than NB-IoT, but that is irrelevant for connected devices like a refrigerator or a milling machine, given that they are plugged in to the electricity supply in any case.
The Internet of Things additionally requires a high-performance wide area network (WAN) so that data can be transported between the connected "things" and the cloud. For this reason, broadband build-out, among other things, also has an important part to play in future-proofing the fixed-line network. Deutsche Telekom laid 10,000 km of optical fibers in Germany in 2015. This is equivalent to the distance between Berlin and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Vectoring network technology ensures rapid data transmission in the local loop, so for example along the last stretch of the network to the house or factory site where a remotely maintained CNC machine could be housed. Vectoring technology makes download speeds of up to 100 megabits per second and upload speeds of 40 megabits per second possible over existing copper lines – that's double the amount possible just a couple of years ago.
As the number of connected machines and M2M applications grows, these networks are also evolving bit by bit. And if, by 2020, as expected by Gartner, there are 16 times as many "speaking things" as there are cars today, the appropriate network connection will be available for each and every one of them.
According to the consultancy firm, 6.4 billion "things" are already connected today. This figure is projected to rise to more than 25 billion by 2020. That would mean almost three times as many communicating machines and devices as there are people.
As the number of connected things increases, so does the volume of data that they send and receive. U.S. network corporation Cisco estimates this will increase from 89 exabytes per month today to 194 exabytes by 2020. By comparison, if all this data were burned on DVDs and the cases were piled one on top of the other, the stack would reach roughly to the moon. Transporting these kinds of data volumes into the cloud and back calls for high-performance communication networks. That is why Deutsche Telekom is doing all it can to make sure its network is ready for the challenges that the Internet of Things will bring.