With the gradual evolution of 5G, the 3GPP will be introducing Reduced Capability (RedCap) New Radio (NR) under Release 17, Release 18, and beyond, which is a “light” version of the 5G standard, addressing devices with cost and energy-constrained use cases. RedCap products will therefore be far less complex, cheaper, have good battery life, and require less bandwidth than current 5G NR products. Unlike traditional modems required to deal with devices accommodating multiple use cases, RedCap is aimed at specialized devices such as industrial modules, consumer or medical wearables, camera surveillance devices, mobile accessories, AR/VR headsets, and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) sensors, including passive sensors.
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RedCap Consumer Devices Set to Become Commercially Available from 2025
The standardization of the first generation of Reduced Capability (RedCap) User Equipment (UE) will be a part of The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) Release 17’s 5G update (functionally frozen in March 2022), Release 18, and beyond. First devices are to be made sometime in 2024, with consumer products likely to arrive in 2025. The essence of RedCap devices is that they are designed to expand the growth of energy-constrained use cases, which are required to transmit simple, less bandwidth-demanding applications over 5G that also do not require low latency when compared with current 5G New Radio (NR) products. This will address devices destined for the consumer, industrial, and enterprise markets, including items such as consumer wearables and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) sensors.
Reduced Complexity and Costs Key to 5G RedCap Driving Future Connected Consumer Devices
The 5G industry has seen phenomenal growth over the past few years, but with the evolution toward 5G Advanced, there is still much to be done to fully expose the value of the 5G ecosystem and realize its full potential. Many new 5G opportunities have already been unlocked, notably better coverage and system performance, lower latency, further reductions in device power consumption and increases in reliability and efficiency. In addition, new 5G features are soon to come online including support for Non-Terrestrial Networks (NTNs), Sidelink evolution and Sidelink relay enhancements, extended frequency band support, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Extended Reality (XR) improvements, and more accurate positioning. However, one notable 5G enhanced feature that could really explode the numbers of connected mobile products is RedCap.
As a relatively new concept, RedCap is adopting many disparate definitions by major stakeholders in the industry, which can encapsulate a diverging combination of device and component types, connectivity methods, and product segmentations. However, under ABI Research’s definition, RedCap covers a variety of use cases and is described in the following terms:
- Any device type that uses a “thin” 5G modem (as opposed to a “thick” 5G NR modem), which is used to transmit simple, less bandwidth-demanding applications over 5G that also do not necessarily require low latency.
- RedCap will be a distinctly different implementation from 5G NR and 5G Advanced devices, in terms of modem and Radio Frequency Front End (RFFE) component selection, use cases, power consumption, and costs.
- There is no cellular fallback from 5G to 3G/4G.
- Excludes any devices that are currently classified as “smart”, although new device types are expected to emanate from certain sectors, notably smartwatch/fitness band hybrids and Augmented Reality (AR) smart glasses.
Using this definition, and by trading off a need for enhanced mobile broadband and enriched capabilities, RedCap allows for the creation of products that are less complex, reduced in cost, have good battery life, and require less bandwidth than 5G NR products. These applications do not require ultra-low latency either but do need better bandwidth than that for Low-Power Wide-Area (LWPA) networks, which currently drive most IoT implementations. Key device types expected to fall under RedCap are industrial modules, consumer or medical wearables, IIoT sensors, camera surveillance devices, mobile accessories, and AR/Virtual Reality (VR) headsets. Owing to the innate nature of RedCap, this list notably excludes more prominent consumer products such as smartphones, tablets, and notebooks.
Such an expansion in 5G RedCap use cases will lead to the development of greater numbers of device form factors and market segments, leading to a large increase in the volume of products taking market growth way beyond mobile phones. Indeed, the profile of a RedCap device lends itself well to certain mobile device and IoT segments and, despite the first generation of this standard being part of 3GPP 5G Release 17, ABI Research assumes that consumer RedCap devices will only start to become available from 2025. Chief among the leading consumer device sectors to accommodate RedCap are a wrist-worn device, AR glasses, wireless headsets (including True Wireless Stereo (TWS)), and personal trackers (or tags).
According to ABI Research, while a number out of these listed devices will have moderate or no full blown 5G NR connectivity over the next few years, notably personal trackers and wireless headsets, there is every possibility that 5G RedCap NR volume will start to grow in each sector from 2025 to 2026. Of note is the effect of RedCap on smartwatches where it is expected to create a new category of wrist-worn device that sits somewhere between the functionality of a cellular-connected smartwatch and a non-cellular sports/fitness band. In this case, the RedCap versions will form an incremental market to other 5G-connected smartwatch/other wearable implementations. Moreover, owing to the very nature of RedCap being applied to energy-constrained, low-cost products, the industry could see massive take-up in the key sectors of wireless headsets and personal trackers. Indeed, it is expected that the personal trackers sector will also be driven by the implementation of 5G positioning, working in tandem with RedCap enablement.
Who's in Line to Help 5G RedCap NR Expand the 5G Ecosystem?
With this identified range of RedCap consumer devices, the vendors expected to drive adoption in the sector are not likely to stray far from current market leaders, such as Apple, Samsung, Google, OPPO, Xiaomi, and Vivo. This is despite an expectation that future consumer RedCap products are to be ranged in much more affordable price tiers, which may require changes to pricing strategies for some players across these device sectors. Many of these listed companies already hold patents in 5G Advanced and it would not be a stretch to suggest that they would also encompass elements for RedCap.
Similarly, 5G RedCap chipsets will need to be manufactured to a very small die size with a ‘thin’ modem and are likely to fall initially to the main incumbents in the mobile and IoT markets, notably Qualcomm, MediaTek, and UNISOC. However, some chipset and module manufacturers who have driven embedded IoT solutions using LTE Cat.1, Cat.4, and Cat M1, such as Fibocom, Sequans, Sony (Altair), and ASR Microelectronics, may also feature RedCap even if they are more than likely to be used in RedCap industrial use cases rather than consumer products.
Following the release of 3GPP Rel.17, the first 5G RedCap chipsets are expected to appear for sampling by early 2023 and are likely to be led by Qualcomm and MediaTek. Here it is expected that RedCap will help vendors achieve significant savings in Bill of Materials (BOM) costs, reduce complexity, and provide more power efficient 5G modules. Moreover, RedCap consumer devices are expected to be used in 5G standalone (SA) environments and, owing to their need to operate just simple tasks demanding less bandwidth, neither carrier aggregation nor dual connectivity will be supported. There is no fallback to 3G/4G networks with RedCap and any that is required will likely be to a hub, LPWA, Ultra-Wideband (UWB), or Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) network.
For the time being, the industry is just scratching the surface with the gradual evolution of 5G, taking its first steps to provide an explosion of enhanced user experiences and use cases. This will be buoyed significantly by upcoming 3GPP releases and the onset of RedCap in the consumer devices sector, boosting 5G deployment at scale while meeting various market needs. The presence of RedCap will give both current and new consumer devices the ability to connect to 5G where it may have once been illogical to do so, creating a distinct product segment that is set to thrive alongside its counterparts in the 5G ecosystem.