BT eyes 5G RedCap and other technologies to support future IoT growth

U.K.-based telco BT recently flagged trials of 5G Reduced Capability (RedCap) technology in collaboration with Nokia and MediaTek. Mark Henry, director of Network & Spectrum Strategy at BT Group, provided some insights into how RedCap and other technologies are expected to support more IoT use cases in the future.

RedCap, introduced in 3GPP Release 17, is designed to bring 5G to devices that do not require its full capabilities. According to BT, the technology has the potential to expand the IoT ecosystem and accelerate its deployment within the industry. As a consequence, the operator is evaluating RedCap to support new 5G use cases that it said could benefit business and consumer customers of its mobile operator, EE.

Henry explained that the recent BT trial made use of Nokia’s AirScale RAN portfolio, EE’s 5G standalone (SA) network (15MHz in 2600MHz paired spectrum), and MediaTek’s RedCap testing platform.

“We expect both upcoming 3GPP standards releases and the widespread arrival of 5G SA to play a crucial role in evolving and accelerating the IoT ecosystem in the coming months and years. RedCap will as a result become an increasingly important technology and, while we do not have a definitive timeline for its deployment, we would expect it to mature to that point within the next couple of years,” he said.

Notably, BT sees RedCap as a complementary technology to current cellular (including low power wide area network/LPWAN technologies such as NB-IoT/LTE-M) and emerging direct-to-device (D2D) satellite technologies.

“RedCap will address applications requiring higher data rates than NB-IoT/LTE-M, but not full 5G data rates,” Henry said. “We anticipate RedCap supporting a range of devices in the future with the potential to benefit both EE’s business and consumer customer bases. These include wearables, glasses, healthcare devices, and security devices.”

NB-IoT rollout in progress, with an eye to LTE-M

Meanwhile, BT is already in the process of rolling out a NB-IoT network across the UK for low-power IoT devices. A key objective here is to provide an alternative connectivity option for devices that currently rely on EE’s 3G network, which is due to be switched off from January 2024. 

According to Henry, the nationwide deployment of NB-IoT “is progressing well. We’re working hard behind the scenes and expect to be able to share more details soon.”

He also confirmed that BT has LTE-M in its sights. “We are continuing to assess a range of further terrestrial and satellite technologies to understand how they might complement existing cellular IoT. LTE-M is one such technology, which we are looking to trial next year.”

Overall, BT and EE are clearly keeping their options open when it comes to IoT.

“While it’s fair to say IoT is still an emerging market, we’ve already seen in certain cases how the adoption of such solutions can deliver substantial benefits to customers when supported by reliable, high-capacity and low-latency networks,” Henry commented.

Here, he cited building state-of-the-art private 5G networks for business customers and supporting the implementation of devices like smart sensors or drones.

“That’s just one example, but through a host of complementary technologies – both existing and future, such as RedCap or direct-to-IoT satellite – we hope to drive innovation and growth across the IoT ecosystem, as well as support our customers in the adoption of such solutions whether a business or personal use-case,” he said. 

What about 5G SA?

While BT used EE’s 5G SA network in the RedCap tests, the mobile operator has yet to commercially launch the standalone variant of its 5G network. Rival operator Vodafone UK pipped it to the post with the launch of its 5G Ultra network in June. 

“Our aim has always been that when we launch 5G SA, it will deliver the best possible experience for our customers, and we’re making great progress behind the scenes to ensure that is the case,” Henry said. 

He did confirm that BT/EE has already moved the “vast majority” of its mobile customers onto “our new 5G-ready network core, while at the same time also upgrading many of our key radio sites across the country and issuing 5G SA-capable SIMs to customers.”

He also noted that the group recently conducted the U.K.’s first call over 5G using Voice over New Radio (VoNR) technology, “something which is crucial to supporting a genuine 5G standalone experience.”