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Published: Apr 15, 2019
Updated: Aug 14, 2019

The 5G for IoT Era: A Brief Primer

Author: Ed Schmit

Internet of Things interconnected graphic

Drivers, Adoption, and Technology behind 5G for the Internet of Things

Ed SchmitAuthor: Ed Schmit, AVP Product Marketing Management, AT&T Developer Program

Ed tracks new technologies for the AT&T Developer Program. His specialties include network technologies, technology enablement, and strategic marketing.

“5G,” we hear about it. Same for “IoT.”

And, you may be asking yourself…

  • What do these mean?
  • Why should I care?
  • How will they be used (or is being used)?
  • What are the technologies behind them?
  • How will it change (or take) form over time?

All good questions.

As a developer, designer, or other digital experiences creator, it’s important to keep up. Maybe a little, maybe a lot. Depends on what you want to achieve in your career. One thing’s for sure, 5G and IoT are going to affect all of us. And already are. We’ve done our best to give you some answers with this introduction article. Consider this the first of many.

What is 5G?

It’s the “5th generation” of mobile networks. 5G is the upcoming standard for wireless networks, carriers, and other global technology companies. 5G will help connect trillions of Internet of Things (IoT) devices, so they can communicate with each other. IoT will continue to generate massive amounts of data. 5G is needed to increase the bandwidth for everything to work together.

A brief history

1G 2G 3G 4G 5G
Voice on analog cellular phones
  • Digital phone calls
  • Text messaging
  • Basic data services
  • Integrated voice, Internet mobile messaging
  • First broadband for an improved Internet
  • Use of applications
  • Voice & messaging
  • High speed Internet
  • High capacity mobile multimedia
  • Faster mobile broadband
Will connect trillions of IoT devices, supporting ‘smart’ homes, buildings & cities


That’s the quick view. Read the definitive guide here.

What’s driving demand for 5G & IoT?

A load of concepts (and realities). Such as…

  • Cars driving you, versus you driving you. Safer. Faster, too.
  • Equipment knowing, versus you knowing, when to be fixed.
  • Smart meters knowing more than how much. Knowing when, too.
  • Knowing where your assets are, how they’re performing, at any time, all the time.

With billions of devices already connected, there’s millions of scenarios for improving human lives.

Let’s look at the two main drivers.

1) Our need for speed: 5G

For our mobile devices, people want (and expect)…

  • More bandwidth
  • Faster speeds
  • Greater coverage
  • More energy efficiency, and…
  • Ultra-low latency

The network must support the growing demand for mobile broadband services. especially to deliver high-quality, video content – faster. Same for virtual and augmented reality, which are just around the corner, and require a network able to transport huge amounts to data.

5G is supposed to be all that.

5G will be used to power IoT applications, across all devices, like: phones, servers, sensors, access points, meters… and anything else with a chip in it.

2) Our need to be connected, safely: IoT

There are 25+ billion IoT devices already connected, worldwide.

It’s expected to be 75 billion by 2025.

5G technology will be the wireless network to support the future growth of IoT. It will be called on to…

  • Connect everything in a secure way
  • Dynamically allocate network resources
  • Reduce latency required for mission critical applications (think utilities, self-driving cars, and wearable health devices)

Imagine a car merging onto a busy highway, losing control for only a few seconds. It’s easy to see how disastrous that would be, right?

Horrible for the drivers. And, damaging to the reputations of the device manufacturers and carriers. Same goes for connected pacemakers. You get the idea.

For this to become (more of) a reality, research and development is ongoing. With a focus for enhancing existing LTE networks and developing new radio interfaces.

Millimeter waves, small cells, massive MIMO, beamforming, and full duplex are some of the building blocks for 5G (you’ll learn about these down the page).

What industries are adopting 5G for IoT?

Here are five of them that are expected to.


Healthcare organizations continue to innovate and digitize their operations. All this generates more data, requiring more bandwidth. 5G of tomorrow will help hospitals and health providers:

  • Quickly transmit large imaging files to share with specialists
  • Expand telemedicine across wired and mobile networks
  • Monitor a patient’s health, real-time and remotely
  • Communicate across languages, no matter where patients live
  • Use artificial intelligence (AI) to determine diagnosis and predict complications

Learn more about how 5G is transforming the healthcare industry.


How will 5G help banks and other finance companies deliver new services?

Here are three ways 5G will eventually help:

  1. Improve wearable devices by connecting them to the cloud to provide better, faster, multiple and more reliable biometric checks. More than just a scan of your finger or face.
  2. Understand users’ behavior to create context-aware, financial recommendations. Like saving money at the local grocery store.
  3. Create better back end services. Imagine sending dozens of photos back to the head office right after a car accident, to know what really happened- quickly.

Learn more about how 5G will enhance the finance industry.


Retailers have often lagged behind in technology. Not so much anymore.

5G is expected to help retailers to:

  • Gather and analyze data to reshape buying habits and predict demand for products
  • Reshape customer expectations, from the moment they enter the store or building
  • Give people what they crave, on their mobile devices. Like, personalized digital signage, using AI.

Imagine, too…

Dressing rooms with interactive ‘magic rooms’ recognizing the product you’re trying on. “Hey, maybe you should try on this pair of shoes with those snazzy slacks.”, as the shoes show up on the wall or mirror.

Smart shelves sensing when a product will become out-of-stock. Then, communicating along the supply chain to send a new shipment, pronto-like.

Personalizing your stay at a hotel, lodge or suite to convert you from a one-time guest to loyal patron. Use your phone to enter the room, adjust the temperature, and raise the blinds. And, remember your settings the next time you arrive. Endless possibilities for making it more comfy than your own home.

Learn more about how 5G will boost the retail industry.


Smart factories filled with smart devices:  All connected by 5G to create the biggest transformation since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

  • Gather data, lots of it. Then crunch on it to create operational intelligence. Like predicting when equipment needs to be attended to,fixed, or replaced- to reduce expensive downtime.
  • Equipment communicating with equipment– wirelessly. Robotics can visually inspect and determine the quality of products, in real-time,with high accuracy.

It’s all about unifying the supply chain. The first waves were powered by steam, people, and software. And now? We’re in the 4th generation on the industrial revolution, powered by the network.

Learn more about how 5G will revolutionize manufacturing.


Of course, let’s not forget about how we move around in our cities.

  • A single, unified network to govern set of transportation rules within a city. With connected vehicles communicating with network as they travel across access points.
  • Buses, subways, cars, pedestrians, lights, stadiums… all connected, communicating, and synchronizing. To make life safe, efficient, and enjoyable.
  • Public and private drivers staying in touch to make real-time adjustments based on road conditions.
  • Mini-clouds communicating with each other. Starting with traffic lights that adjust on the fly to fluctuations in traffic.

Learn more about how 5G will impact the  transportation industry.

How is 5G for IoT built?

The rollout of 5Gis already underway. AT&T’s vision for 5G is crystal clear, and we’re already bringing it to life. It promises faster connections and lower latency. Many experts expect 5G will handle 1000 times more mobile data than today’s cellular systems. Thus, making 5G the backbone of the IoT, connecting fixed and mobile devices. Millions, then billions, then trillions of them.

To name a few, devices like… vending machines, refrigerators, music systems, virtual assistants, door locks & door bells, sleep trackers, thermostats, flower pots, light bulbs, cameras, washing machines, jewelry, toothbrushes, sprinklers, frying pans, your mirrors, and your pets’ leashes & collars. And of course, planes, trains and automobiles. Just about anything (and everything) made, will be made Internet-aware. All of this, creating and enabling a new architecture, new hardware and new communication technologies- bringing the IoT into our home, work, play… and thinking spaces.

The building blocks of 5G for IoT

A quick look at some of the pieces required to create our future smart cities, smart homes, and smart work places.

To start, there are three categories of the IoT:

  • Enable ‘things’ to capture information
  • Enable ‘things’ to process that information
  • Enable security and privacy when doing both those

The first two categories are functional building blocks. They’re required for building ‘intelligence’ into ‘things.’ This differentiates the IoT from the ‘usual’ internet. That third category, a ‘de facto’ requirement to maintain high security and privacy.

More devices, more sensors, more users, more conversations… more data. This requires more bandwidth and less latency to create smart environments, cities, buildings, vehicles, clothing, and portables.

With 5G being the wireless network gluing the IoT together. However, the current building blocks won’t power 5G for IoT.

But these will…


More people with more devices consuming more data, all crammed on the same radio-frequency bands as yesteryear. This causes less bandwidth, slower services, and dropped connections- for everyone.

Introducing millimeter waves. These use higher frequencies than current radio waves. Millimeter waves broadcast between 20 and 300 gigahertz. That’s fast. Current bands are below 6GHz.

One drawback- they don’t travel so well through buildings and obstacles. And, they can be absorbed by foliage and rain. So then…


Small cells are essentially mini base stations. They operate using little power and can be placed every 250 (ish) meters throughout cities. On light poles, atop buildings, and other small ‘towers.’

They’re used to create a dense network to prevent signals from being dropped. Like a relay team, receiving signals from base stations and sending data to users-anywhere.

Small cells use small antennas to transmit those tiny millimeter waves.

However, more signals to and from requires more antennas to send and receive.

Welcome to our next tech-guest…


Today’s 4G base stations have maybe a dozen ports, to support a few antennas.

5G base stations support about a hundred ports, to support dozens of antennas.

More antennas means these massive MIMO (multiple-input multiple-output) base stations can send and receive more signals- at once. This speeds up the mobile network by a factor of at least 22.

More antennas, great right? Except more antennas cause more interference when signals cross.

That’s where beam forming comes in.


Beamforming is the traffic cop for cellular base stations. It identifies the most efficient route to a user. And, reduces interference for the others nearby.

Beamforming helps massive MIMO reduce interference when sending signals from its many antennas. It plots the best course to route through the air to each user. Even if it means bouncing signals off buildings and other objects to choreograph packet movements and arrival times.

For millimeter waves, it’s a different problem to solve. Cellular signals are often blocked by objects and weakened over distance. Beamforming focuses signals directly to a user, rather than broadcasting in many directions at once. This strengthens the signal while reducing interference for everyone else.

Yet wireless engineers still want to achieve more throughput and less latency…


Today’s base station and cellphone transceivers must take turns sending and receiving signals over the same frequency (or, operate on different frequencies to send and receive at the same time).

Not so with 5G transceivers. They can send and receive signals at the same time, on the same frequency. Thanks to full duplex technology.

Full duplex cuts communication times by 2x. It’s like two people talking at the same time, while understanding each other.

Although… full duplex often creates a pesky echo interference. Special echo-cancelling technology is helping reduce interference, so antennas can speak and listen at the same time.

There’s some of the basics for the 5G-IoT era.

Perhaps you have even more questions now. That’s good.

We’ll be writing more about this, to help you prepare for the era and how it will affect your work.

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