In the U.S., critical shutdown dates for 2G/3G cellular networks have passed or are rapidly approaching. New generations of cellular technology are coming online, and network operators are reclaiming and repurposing this spectrum. Fortunately, however, since these next-generation networks are more efficient, more data can be transmitted over the same bandwidth of spectrum at higher speeds.

As cellular carriers move away from legacy networks and customers delay upgrades, this 2G/3G sunset represents a significant transition for many companies. 2G and 3G networks remain the most-used technologies for IoT devices, and the widespread rollout of 5G for commercial and industrial applications could take five to 10 years. That’s why it’s time to create an action plan for network migration to LTE, which will not just be a stopgap but a foundation of IoT communication — even well into the 5G era.

2G/3G Network Shutdowns

Already, the full shutdown of 2G and 3G networks has led to difficulties and challenges, and, now, organizations face full network migrations where they must decide which new technology to adopt and determine how-to futureproof IoT deployments. Given the exponential growth of IoT devices in recent years and the limits on available spectrum, the life span of cellular technology is getting shorter.

With network shutdowns and bandwidth reallocations underway, enterprises want to know how long 4G LTE will be available, whether 5G will make 4G obsolete, and how to plan their investments. They also want to understand how to upgrade legacy communications devices in time to ensure uninterrupted operations.

The fact is, most legacy devices will no longer connect to new networks, making migration strategies to 4G LTE and 5G all the more vital. To start LTE migration planning, businesses should assess applications and affected devices, determine current and projected use cases, and evaluate how they may be impacted by new technology.

The Current State of 4G

To determine the best choice for IoT deployments, enterprises must consider both 4G LTE functionality and life span. Initial 4G LTE sunsets aren’t expected until after 2030, so we will see a significant transition when 4G and 5G will coexist, allowing companies to safely invest in 4G-based IoT solutions in the near term. Additionally, where 5G is getting deployed, 4G LTE comes along for the ride, which means improved coverage, speed, and capacity.

In both consumer and commercial applications, 4G LTE offers proven flexibility and reliability. For example, it accommodates low-power LTE-M and NB-IoT devices that typically transmit only a few kilobytes of data, as well as devices capable of high-speed gigabit data transmission. Thanks to widespread adoption, 4G LTE is also affordable.

As 5G phases in over the next several years, 4G LTE will remain a staple of corporate IoT networks. Dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) technology will enable 4G and 5G networks to share the same bands, creating both a faster rollout of 5G and greater longevity for 4G LTE. However, as technology advances, new applications and use cases for 5G will emerge, and the opportunity to begin road-mapping for them is now.

How 5G Is Shaping the Market

The fundamental premise of 5G is a single network that handles a broad variety of use cases. To deliver on that promise, mobile network operators must build dense network infrastructures with a massive number of nodes. With the arrival of 5G, more IoT devices will be connected with higher data transmission speeds, lower latency, and lower power requirements. Rolling out these node-intensive networks across major cities is an enormous undertaking, and 5G devices must be developed and tested on these developing networks in multiple markets to achieve critical mass across commercial and industrial IoT.

The excitement around 5G, and its unprecedented speed and low latency, is creating a rush of interest. Over the next several years, network infrastructures will evolve to enable 5G-only standalone (SA) mode, enabling low latency and an ability to connect with a mass of IoT devices. This adoption cycle will be transformational, enabling many new applications not viable today, especially in denser urban areas.

The reality and suitability of 5G applications (and how they will affect businesses globally) hinge on several factors: location, industry, and applicable use cases. For example, consumer smartphones will see a much faster trajectory than commercial and industrial IoT products.  Additionally, 4G LTE’s near-term viability and support capabilities would be significantly more expensive to launch on a similar scale using 5G networks today. With this growing divide between urban and rural areas regarding network connectivity and services, it would be impractical to deploy 5G everywhere right away. In fact, for many applications, that would be overkill. This is just one reason why businesses should transform and adapt their operations at their own appropriate scale and pace.

Final Considerations

Choosing between 4G LTE and 5G means analyzing both the technical and business aspects of any new project the network would support and projecting the long-term costs and benefits of each alternative. In most cases, enterprises can start building the future now with 4G LTE technology, validate applications and business models, and refine and expand when 5G becomes more widely available and cost-effective.

To support this decision-making process, enterprises should consider the variety of solutions available to help them transition to 5G. 4G LTE will continue to thrive for at least a decade to come, providing the speed and bandwidth to support most of today’s IoT applications. With LTE and 5G networks coexisting, 5G networks and applications will be poised to respond to the orderly transition from 4G networks.