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NR-Light for 5G-native wide-area IoT

A key objective for 5G is to enable connected industries using machine communications and to support diverse, wide-area Internet of Things (IoT) applications.

To date, 5G IoT has focused on low complexity devices, such as asset trackers and smart meters, and on high performance applications, such as control of robotics and industrial equipment. There is also, however, a clear need to address mid-tier devices, such as wearables, health monitors, vehicle trackers, voice assistants and many types of industrial sensors. To do this efficiently, at scale, over the long term, takes a new class of 5G-native IoT.

The industry solution for mid-tier 5G IoT connectivity is NR-Light, also known as RedCap for "reduced capability." Introduced in 3GPP Release 17, NR-Light bridges the capability and complexity gap between the high and low performance IoT available in 5G today. NR-Light devices connect to 5G standalone (SA) networks and can run in all 5G frequency allocations alongside other service types in the same network.

A new Heavy Reading white paper, Scaling 5G IoT with NR-Light, investigates progress in NR-Light standardization and technical development and positions mid-tier IoT in the wider 5G ecosystem. The paper — available for download here — argues that NR-Light will contribute to making 5G a technology platform on which diverse industries and customers can innovate.

Many mid-tier cellular IoT use cases can be handled by LTE technologies — for example, LTE Cat-1bis and LTE Cat-4. So why, then, is there a need for a 5G-native solution? The paper outlines the compelling reasons why a 5G-native IoT solution is needed for mid-tier devices:

  • 5G needs IoT support to become a true platform technology. In public and private networks, a large part of the investment case for 5G is about connected devices and machine communications; yet, today, the market is dominated by smartphones. 5G-native IoT solutions will expand the market for 5G by enabling it to support diverse consumer and industrial IoT use cases.
  • To enable a long-term migration path for LTE Cat-1bis and LTE Cat-4 services. This is important to operators seeking to refarm 2G/3G and 4G spectrum for 5G. Spectrum refarming is a long-term project for most operators, but one with significant benefits. Cat1.bis and Cat-4 represent about half the market for cellular IoT today.
  • To support direct to 5G deployments. Many organizations will want to deploy IoT directly on 5G to future-proof the investment and service lifecycle. These customers will be able to take advantage of the global investment in 5G technology and the rapidly expanding wide-area network coverage. As a 5G-native IoT platform, NR-Light will continue to evolve beyond Release 17, with new capabilities and efficiencies already in development.
  • 5G brings value to IoT. 5G system capabilities (e.g., scalable numerology, beamforming, positioning, service exposure, QoS, slicing, energy efficiency, etc.) can be used to enable better, more efficient IoT services. 5G supports the full coexistence of NR-Light with other services, such as mobile broadband or time-critical communications, in the same 5G SA network.

NR-Light will, of course, take time to develop and scale. The Release 17 standard was only finalized in the summer of 2022, and the deployment of 5G SA networks is ongoing. It is, however, a strategically important 5G IoT technology that the mobile ecosystem — from device makers to operators and application developers — should already be thinking about how to commercialize and scale.

NR-Light is also only a part of a wider 5G capability to support IoT. The 5G system offers a unified air interface and network platform capable of supporting IoT applications, from mission-critical services through to low complexity, delay-tolerant services. NR-Light helps complete the picture and has the potential to serve the broadest number of wide-area IoT use cases.

To download the Heavy Reading white paper, Scaling 5G IoT with NR-Light, click here.

This blog is sponsored by Qualcomm.

Gabriel Brown, Senior Principal Analyst – Mobile Networks & 5G, Heavy Reading

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