Fragmentation is a very real issue in many areas of technology, but the apparent uncertainty it may bring specifically to the future of 5G and the Internet of Things (IoT) may be a bigger challenge. First of all, many supporters of 5G have assumed that the next generation network will be all but a requirement to make IoT a reality. It has been posed that such a wide swath of interconnected devices – many, such as autonomous automobiles, needing to be in near constant communication with each other – will require enormous leaps in both bandwidth and speed. Another problem facing IoT centers around standardization of the interconnectivity of technology and that 5G was the standard everybody seemed to be looking to in solving connectivity problems. Instead, what has emerged are a handful of intermediary connective platforms which threaten the previously mentioned arguments for 5G. All of this comes together in a way that may, according to at least one analysis, ultimately end up stunting the growth of both 5G and the IoT.
The primary underlying problem is well summed up in a report written and published by Michele Mackenzie and Tom Rebbeck of Analysys Mason. The report focuses on observations made at this year's MWC and was published on March 14. Mackenzie and Rebbeck note that several carriers and associated vendors have opted to go in the opposite direction from 5G, with regards to the IoT. Companies such as AT&T and Verizon are backing a 1Mbps technology called LTE-M for the IoT. That flies directly in the face of former claims that 5G will be essential to getting things going. Meanwhile, other vendors and providers are focusing efforts on similarly spec'd narrowband NB-IoT technology. While both of these connectivity technologies are relatively inexpensive compared to a full implementation of 5G networks, any company looking to add IoT connectivity to its products or devices would have to make the difficult decision of choosing which technology to add. Both technologies could be added but it "adds complexity and cost; exactly what the industry wants to avoid with solutions for IoT." Moreover, the push for 5G is being slowed by the fact that the current IoT environment does not need such an advanced solution. It may need 5G in the future but, as it stands, that appears to be another solution for another day. Carriers and their counterparts are going to have a hard time justifying the cost of 5G implementation if they aren't actually required to and therefore won't see substantial returns on investments. This is amplified by the fact that both LTE-M and NB-IoT can both be pushed over an LTE carrier network with little more than a simple software solution.
The fragmentation in technologies will likely not only affect operators, carriers, vendors, and other companies either. In addition to causing uncertainty within the industry itself, fragmentation is likely to cause uncertainty in consumers with regard to IoT technology and devices unless the industry can clearly explain how the differing technologies are able to work together. However, it's not all doom and gloom. Broader, more standardized solutions are still coming and that includes 5G. As always, technology will continue its relentless march even when it is forced to slow down and nobody is talking about abandoning current 5G efforts yet.