Beyond smartphones, tablets and routers, the Internet of Things (IoT) promises a myriad new business opportunities for non-traditional device makers that connect ‘things’ to the Internet that have never been connected before.
Manufacturing and marketing devices that allow better monitoring and new efficiency for home and business, transportation, energy, agriculture, health care, security, retail, advertising and so on is just one new area of enterprise in the coming years.
Gartner estimates that by 2020 there will be 20.8 billion devices connected to the Internet, generating over 20 zettabytes of data. By that time, spending on IoT endpoint hardware will total
$3 trillion for new services with applications in homes, businesses, cities and across industries.
Already, the use cases are extensive - lighting, temperature and electricity usage monitored for energy efficiency in the home, traffic and parking sensors in cities that generate income from smart utility metering, smoke detectors and motion-triggered security surveillance in buildings, sensors monitoring stock levels in connected retail environments, asset tracking in the logistics industry, sensors embedded in equipment and positioned around factories to reduce bottlenecks in the manufacturing process, environmental monitoring in the agricultural sector… and that’s just a start.
Covering a broad spectrum of applications means many IoT devices with differing connectivity needs. Sometimes, high bandwidth for real-time video surveillance. Asset tracking devices need little data throughput in terms of transfer size, but transfer may happen frequently as freight moves. Smart meters might require small data transfer only once a day.
IoT is unlikely to evolve a single, fit-for-all-purposes connectivity technology. Instead, a combination of cellular and non-cellular low-power networks is likely to connect many Things into the Internet of Things.
Long Term Evolution or LTE, already the fastest-growing wireless standard, was originally introduced in release 8 of the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) standard in 2008. Core LTE technology has adapted since to the ever-changing market requirements with 3GPP’s releases 10, 11, and 12, ensuring network longevity.
In 2015, 3GPP agreed to define a standard for narrow band IoT based on LTE, optimised for devices that typically rely on batteries and only send small amounts of information. Release 13 of the 3GPP standard, completed just over a year ago, introduced a suite of new narrowband technologies that are collectively referred to as LTE IoT.
LTE IoT brings many improvements, including complexity reduction for lower-end devices, more efficient low-power modes for multi-year battery life, and advanced transmission for deepened coverage.
It includes two new device categories that specifically support lower data-rate applications - LTE Cat-M1 (or eMTC, Enhanced Machine-Type Communication) which enables the broadest range of IoT capabilities in mobile IoT devices, and LTE Cat-NB1 (NB-IoT, or Narrowband IoT) scales down cost and power for low-end IoT use cases that typically require stationary devices.
LTE Cat-M1 delivers data rates up to 1 Mbps, using only 1.4 MHz device bandwidth (1.08 MHz in-band transmissions of 6 resource blocks) in existing LTE FDD/TDD spectrum. Cat-M1 supports voice (VoLTE) and full-to-limited mobility, but support only low-peak rates and half-duplex operation to reduce device costs. Still, repetition in physical signalling and data channels to increase link budget allows LTE signals to reach devices deep indoors or deployed in remote locations.
NB-IoT leverages narrowband operations using 200 kHz device bandwidth (180 kHz in-band transmissions of one resource block) in LTE FDD. To enhance coverage, it trades off spectral efficiency and capability for extra gain over LTE Cat-M1.
LTE IoT is the foundation of narrowband 5G. By reducing complexity, improving battery life, enhancing coverage, and enabling higher node density deployments, the cellular future appears bright when it comes to IoT.
However, publicising device standards is just the beginning. While the cellular industry is furiously commercialising these new cellular-based technologies for IoT hardware, it is up against SigFox, Ingenu, and the LoRa Alliance who are already deploying networks with Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) technologies.
Unlike LTE IoT, LPWAN is not a standard. It is a type of wireless wide area network encompassing various implementations and protocols, some proprietary and others open-source, designed to allow long range communications at a low bit rate among connected ‘things’, such as sensors operated on a battery. LPWAN technology is not new but it’s been given renewed attention due to the increasing demand for low-cost, long-range, low throughput devices to support IoT solutions.
LPWAN has a range between five and 40 km, and end nodes can be a long distance from the gateway, as much as 10 km. Ultra-low power consumption means that batteries powering remote sensor nodes can last up to 10 years. LPWAN is also ideal for the low throughput requirements of IoT data packets, usually transmitted at around a couple of hundred bits per second (bps)
In situations where cellular has been too expensive, LPWAN is considered an obvious alternative but this was before LTE Cat-M1.
It will be interesting to see how the market demand for low-cost LTE IoT will accelerate or delay the cellular industry’s development of suitable devices. Misreading that demand may result in more opportunity for LPWAN network providers who are gearing up now.
Still, one of the advantages of cellular IoT is that network operators do not need to replace the infrastructure – including base stations – into which they have invested billions of Rands. They need only make incremental investments and upgrades, providing potential cost savings that may or may not pass on to consumers. LPWAN may then remain a niche solution within the IoT space, its pervasiveness dependent on the choices made by ICT engineers when designing systems.
With the development of our IoT management platform in progress, Internet Solutions is preparing for hybrid IoT solutions that allow enterprises and other users to determine the combination of technologies that are the best fit for their business case.
We are well on the way to using ‘things’ to monitor, control, automate and communicate in every possible way. We are no longer asking ‘if’ we can instrument and digitise society but ‘when’.