Future NR-Light Uses Could Simplify IoT

In our third article in this series, we turn our attention to new uses NR-Light might enable for the Internet of things (IoT). NR-Light is a 5G New Radio (NR) technology standard that takes advantage of the latest air interface, spectral offerings and intelligent network architecture to bring the benefits of 5G to IoT. Like any new tool, NR-Light introduces capabilities that could pave the way for applications that weren’t possible before.

For instance, IoT designs based on NR-Light can scale up data throughput while preserving battery life, allowing for more data-rich applications such as remote video cameras. This ability to “right-size” 5G connectivity could give product designers freedom to introduce features that would’ve previously taken too much of a toll on a device’s battery life, such as video conferencing on a smartwatch.

NR-Light can be used in several areas, including healthcare, industrial automation, transportation, smart cities and entertainment. In theory, the tech should provide wireless connectivity for end-point devices to gather data, perform machine learning and enable processes that ultimately transform the entire value chain.

Balancing IoT Capabilities and Attributes

At present, IoT devices can only use one of two network standards for machine connectivity: the traditional narrowband standard for massive IoT, which prioritizes battery life on simple devices, or mission-critical IoT, which emphasizes ultrareliable connectivity for purpose-built applications. The former favours long-term battery operations over data throughput, and the latter prioritizes performance to the detriment of network scaling and cost. As a result, there’s a sizeable capability and complexity gap between the two current standards (see graph below).

Creating a middle-ground connectivity solution was a big reason for establishing NR-Light on the 3GPP Release 17 standard. The idea of reduced capability, or “RedCap”, was formed to scale down the broader capabilities of 5G NR for IoT. Although functionally accurate and whimsically clever, the term RedCap conveys limitations, whereas NR-Light reflects the potential benefits of the new standard. That’s why our preference is to stick with the NR-Light moniker in this series.

Devices capable of communicating over NR-Light are poised to enter the market in 2024. Component suppliers are already preparing to add chips compatible with 3GPP Release 17 to commercial IoT products. First out of the gate was Qualcomm with its Snapdragon X32 and X35 5G modem and radio frequency solutions, announced in early February 2023. These will provide device-makers with a cheap upgrade path from existing LTE Category 4 capabilities to NR-Light, opening up new avenues of innovation. Other suppliers are expected to follow suit, enabling new and enhanced uses for IoT.

Scaling Up Capabilities

Thinking about the applications NR-Light could enable, the ideas that first come to mind are to improve existing uses. Adding stronger connectivity to products like smartwatches, asset trackers and industrial cameras would provide significant value to the buyer. Imagine, for example, an NR-Light upgrade to existing LTE smartwatches that allows users to confidently leave their smartphone behind during outdoor exercise, as the wider bandwidth improves what current single-antenna designs can offer.

Asset tracking could also gain a boost from NR-Light connectivity by increasing the refresh rate of uploaded data, allowing for better real-time location services. When tied to cloud services such as delivery platforms, these could improve arrival estimates — as well as customer satisfaction. And industrial cameras would become more useful as artificial intelligence at the network edge allows for enhanced object detection, enabling applications such as crop health inspection and enforcement of safety protocols by tracking worker compliance.

Of course, cost is the determining factor for all these IoT applications, as is the ability to receive network coverage. Unless NR-Light is close enough to existing device costs, it’s unlikely to be used outside niche or high-value applications.

Novel Uses

In the realm of new applications, NR-Light could offer some truly exciting and clever solutions to existing problems. Entrepreneurs with big ideas and ambitions to take advantage of this new wireless platform could thrive here — after all, providing industries with solutions that offer better results at lower costs is part of what NR-Light was designed for.

Digital signage is one area ripe for the technology. NR-Light is an ideal method for digital canvases to wirelessly display ads, retail promotions and even safety information. Combined with other innovations, such as low-power e-ink displays, NR-Light could even enable digital signs to be deployed in locations without electrical power sources.

Another low-hanging fruit is healthcare. The cost and efficacy of healthcare delivery is of significant concern, and NR-Light can help here by providing wireless connectivity in hospitals. Currently, care in hospital rooms relies on various health monitors attached to the patient and to wired networks. But if these devices were enhanced with NR-Light, hospitals could switch to a private 5G network. Aside from removing hazardous wired cables, NR-Light may pave the way for digital transformation in this environment, as patient information would be captured and analysed in real time. And because these monitors are designed to be moved from room to room, NR-Light has the added benefit of being able to not only locate but also manage this fleet of equipment.

A Healthy Dose of Realism

Cellular IoT has a history of overpromising and underdelivering on applications and their mass adoption, so any new technology is understandably met with a healthy dose of scepticism.

Firstly, the cost of the solution must be reconciled with a valid business model where the value created justifies the product’s selling price. Secondly, there are other technologies that serve as adequate substitutes for always-on connectivity, such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. To return to the healthcare example, Bluetooth would provide many of the same benefits as NR-Light in hospitals. And thirdly, the tech industry needs to industrialize the solution in ways that suit its customers before selling and offering long-term support. This has always been a major weakness when addressing IoT opportunities.

Although NR-Light as a technology offers solutions to existing gaps in cellular IoT, it’s not the only way the industry as a whole can succeed. Future NR-Light devices and solutions need to perform well based on their own merits of providing value and creating a sustainable business model. The uses highlighted here only serve as possibilities of what could be achieved when IoT devices are imbued with NR-Light connectivity. Perhaps some will emerge that aren’t mentioned here but that will ultimately win out in the market. Or perhaps they won’t.

Hindsight is always 20/20. NR-Light was developed to address the limitations discovered in cellular IoT connectivity as it rolled out in the age of 4G LTE. With a more well-rounded set of capabilities, NR-Light presents the industry with a new set of design rules. These should enable IoT radio designs to take advantage of more flexible product attributes and offer features that weren’t previously possible. Along with other transformative technologies such as artificial intelligence, power-efficient computing and sensor technologies, the future of cellular IoT remains bright.