3 October 2019

What can 5G IoT be useful for in the Digital Grid?

5G is coming soon.

This is not new information for many of you reading this blog post but some of you may be unsure of what effect this new mobile network can have on the industry. This post will discuss:

  • What is 5G? The misconceptions surrounding 5G networks.
  • The uses for 5G networks in the Digital Grid sector.
  • The limitations that 5G inherently has.

What is 5G?

5G is the newest generation of wireless network that is going to be rolled out across the globe in the coming years. Everybody knows what 4G is and according to a Statista study:

Just 10% of people in the UK do not have access to a 4G service

Statista 2019

However 5G is different, 5G is not simply an upgrade of 4G as 4G was to 3G, it is a whole new enabling technology that is set to revolutionise the way that the world communicates. 5G uses the section of the Electromagnetic spectrum that contains waves with frequencies located in the GHz range, this range will be split into bands and companies will be able to purchase the rights to use these bands as necessary.

5G networks will fall into three categories of networks;

  • Public
  • Semi-public
  • Private

In short, public networks are the networks that telecommunications companies such as Vodafone set up to bring wireless network access to the public, everybody is able to have access to the internet via these networks.

Private and Semi-private networks are where the real advantages to industry lie – these networks are customizable networks that can be set up as standalone networks between any devices that contain the hardware required to be part of a 5G network. These networks are fully configurable to the requirements of the system and this leads naturally to an IoT style, multi-device configuration.

Uses for 5G

‘The Digital Grid’ is the idea that electricity networks can be secured, protected and managed digitally and efficiently by various units such as Distribution automation boxes or Current / Voltage protection devices.

These units communicate as part of the electricity network and usually this communication is via Fiber optic cables which offer unlimited bandwidth and high reliability, or via wireless mesh networks that use current wireless technologies. However, these networks are bandwidth limited and are subject to relatively high latency.

This is where 5G could be the solution, as mentioned in the previous section, 5G networks are extremely customizable. There are three main properties of 5G that form a trade-off triangle, these are;

  • Number of Devices
  • Latency / Reliability
  • Data rate

5G trade-off triangle

For an application such as the Digital Grid, the properties that would need to be prioritised are ‘Number of Devices’ and ‘Latency/reliability’. The data that are transferred between these devices are not particularly large, they often contain simple strings, the ‘Data Rate’ property would be more useful for applications such as streaming graphics, 4K video etc.

However, I know what many of you will be thinking, these systems require high security, how can we be sure that the 5G network systems are secure enough? Ericsson (a leading force in the 5G space) have the answer:

5G marks the beginning of a new era of network security with the introduction of IMSI encryption. All traffic data which is sent over 5G radio network is encrypted, integrity protected and subject to mutual authentication e.g. device to network.

Ericsson 2019

So there it is, 5G is the answer to everything…but is it?

Limitations of 5G

5G, like everything, has it’s limitations. The first of these being range. As was mentioned previously, 5G takes advantage of super high frequency electromagnetic waves, the disadvantage to this is that higher frequencies limit range, it is said that the range of a 5G signal is around 1000ft (300m) through line of sight.

This gives rise to another limitation, 5G signals are not as good as previous technologies at penetrating surfaces, even trees can obstruct the signal. This means that line of sight is ideal and hence a lot of 5G hubs will be needed across the Electricity network.

Despite this, I think the benefits of using 5G in the Digital Grid outweigh the limitations, I think that the limitations can be overcome and it is worth investigating how 5G can be implemented into the digital grid, but also into other smart communication networks across the industry.

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