5G URLLC brings the potential for ultra reliability and near-zero latency to critical IoT.

One of the most promising 5G services for business may also have the most ambitious moniker—ultra-reliable, low-latency communications.

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URLLC, for short, aims to bring advanced wireless connectivity to robots, drones, and other technologies on the cusp of mainstream adoption. It is expected to become a key wireless solution in areas including industrial automation, smart factories, and telemedicine.

URLLC is one of three primary 5G service categories:

  • Enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) — The latest generation of cellular capabilities beyond 4G and LTE. These services, which promise lower latency—lower data delays—and faster downloads than their predecessors, are already widely available and used by millions worldwide.
  • Massive machine-type communications (mMTC) — Poised to support billions of sensors and devices, for potential use managing warehouse inventory, vehicle fleets, and more. It may be several years before mMTC services, still in development, become generally available.
  • Ultra-reliable, low-latency communications (URLLC) — Has the potential to provide up to 99.999% reliability, with latency measured in single-digit milliseconds, depending on use case requirements. It’s an emerging service for “critical IoT,” where devices requiring highly responsive connectivity may be spread over wide geographic areas.

Over the next few years, URLLC may become the sweet spot for many 5G-enabled use cases.

For example, as URLLC evolves, its high reliability and low latency could potentially be well suited to Halo’s driverless car service, which was launched last year in Las Vegas running on the T-Mobile 5G network. Halo’s electric vehicles are operated remotely over the 5G network by trained in-house drivers.

“Driverless vehicles require a network with high capacity, broad coverage and low latency, making T-Mobile 5G a perfect match for developers such as Halo,” said John Saw, Executive VP of Advanced & Emerging Technologies at T-Mobile.

With its sub-second latency, URLLC has the potential for nearly instantaneous responsiveness. This kind of near real-time performance would be vital for everything from maneuvering robots to creating holograms.

Potential URLLC use cases.

Autonomous vehicles are a frequently cited use case for URLLC, but there are a wide range of other possibilities. These 5G services are ideal for environments that involve mobile people, devices, or equipment and/or that require fast, uninterrupted wireless connectivity.

Possible scenarios for URLLC include:
●        Guidance of drones and mobile robots
●        Industrial control in automated factories
●        Human-directed remote control of machines and equipment
●        Coexistence of physical environments with augmented and virtual reality
●        Traffic management that is augmented by sensors and cameras
●        Bio-connectivity via wireless-enabled medical devices
●        Automation and remote control of smart electric grids
●        Remote surgery and other telemedicine

In addition, URLLC’s reliability and responsiveness (which is poised to improve over time) could be well matched for so-called Tactile Internet applications, where human-to-machine interactions are measured in thousandths of a second. An example might include an online retail experience in which a shopper can virtually touch a product or garment.

With its sub-second latency, URLLC has the potential for nearly instantaneous responsiveness. This kind of near real-time performance would be vital for everything from maneuvering robots to creating holograms, as discussed in this article about approaching zero latency with 5G.

“In a low-latency economy, businesses will start to develop applications and use cases that seize this new opportunity,” the article notes.

At the same time, URLLC would not be limited to the bleeding edge of science and technology. It could be used, for example, to support everyday applications such as gaming.

But don’t expect consumers to get starry-eyed about the advent of the URLLC phenomenon. Most consumers will probably never hear the term URLLC, even when it enables exciting new use cases.

Business and IT decision makers, on the other hand, will want to pay attention to what URLLC could offer in terms of speed and reliability, because these emerging services may be an ideal way to help drive and support their strategic initiatives.  

An emerging standard.

The definition and continuing advancement of URLLC will happen under the auspices of the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), a global consortium of standards organizations that develops protocols for mobile telecommunications.

3GPP standards are in constant evolution, with 5G capabilities and specifications taking shape over different releases that happen every year or two. Initial support for URLLC started in 2020 with Release 16.

The timeline is significant because standards maturation is a prerequisite to wide-scale use in 5G products, infrastructure, and services. As of mid-2022, device and equipment compatibility has been a limiting factor in URLLC deployment, although that is changing as more 5G gear gets tested and certified. In May 2022, for example, Nokia launched a range of new 5G-enabled devices, including a 5G video camera, wearable cameras, and more.

URLLC will be offered on Standalone 5G networks, which are built using network equipment that is designed specifically for 5G. On the other hand, URLLC will generally not be available over Non-Standalone 5G, which uses a 4G core.

URLLC will be rolled out gradually and will likely show up in private 5G networks first, followed by public 5G networks.

A new era of performance.

Pilot projects and early URLLC implementations will require collaboration among businesses and their partners in the 5G ecosystem.

T-Mobile for Business’ recently introduced 5G Advanced Network Solutions brings together industry leaders—including Dell Technologies, Ericsson, and Nokia—to build on T-Mobile’s public 5G network with private and hybrid networks, providing managed services that combine speed, low latency, and reliability to customers across industries.

In one example, the global racing league SailGP is using 5G Advanced Network Solutions to minimize latency for real-time analytics for its boats, which can travel across the water at speeds up to 60 mph. Some customers are already using 5G Advanced Network Solutions to reduce latency by up to 50 percent compared to Wi-Fi and Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum.

“Making technology-driven decisions while flying above the water at highway speeds makes all the difference between winning and losing,” said Russell Coutts, CEO of SailGP. “It also gives fans an amazing viewing experience.”

With 5G Advanced Network Solutions powering SailGP’s F50 fleet of catamarans, Coutts adds, “We’ve entered a new era of racing.”

Likewise, as URLLC becomes capable of enabling faster, more reliable cellular connectivity, businesses of all kinds are entering a new era of application performance. Autonomous vehicles, robots, and other critically-reliable, sensor-enabled machines and equipment will provide all the evidence we need to know whether URLLC is working.

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