The Internet-of-Things(IoT) is slowly revolutionizing a large number of production and living processes we have today, much like how 20 years ago, information technology slipped into every known process there is and how afterward, it led to all these processes resigning themselves to the use of computers and everything digital.
Admittedly, the IoT will result in more connections around us. According to Juniper Research in its latest research report The Internet of Things: Consumer, Industrial & Public Services 2015-2020, the number of devices connected to the Internet will reach 13.4 billion this year, and will continue to rise rapidly to hit 38.5 billion by 2020, which is by the way, the year slated for 5G, 4G’s successor, to be commercially rolled out by Operators.
Honeywell Connected Thermostat
5G is touted as the ultimate technology, at least for now, given the limitations of 4G LTE and 4G LTE-A, despite the super fast speeds they deliver world over. 4G LTE and 4G LTE-A and other variants such as LTE-U and LTE-M are great, and promise mobile experiences never possible before, but rich applications such as mobile gaming, augmented reality and HD video streaming provided on ultra fast fixed broadband connectivity, for example on home computers and gaming consoles - have spoiled a large chunk of the population with quality of experience that has yet to make itself available on cellular devices. For this reason, 5G and the promises it brings, including the popular ‘a 1000 times faster than 4G’ promo-line, is anticipated to close this gap and meet the expectations of today’s experience-hungry subscribers.
But what 5G will really be fuelling in a big way, is the IoT. If 38.5 billion objects are to be connected to the network, surely there will be stiff competition between objects such as a connected camera continuously sending images of an ATM kiosk it is monitoring, with user devices such as a smartphone streaming a 10 minute video clip onto its screen. Data sent and received by billions of IoT objects will be competing with data sent and received by user devices for bandwidth and speed and quality, and Operators will have their hands full, and will be scrambling for means to augment network capacity with various innovative techniques, such as C-RAN, massive MIMO, full duplexing and non-orthogonal multiple access.
If 5G, when it becomes available, can provide all the bandwidth needed to support both streams, then perhaps transitional technologies can be deployed in the interim, provided that no huge outlays of capital infrastructure are necessary during that tenure. That would have been the case if bandwidth is the only concern for IoT deployments, but it is not.
IoT deployments have to take other factors into consideration, namely the type of the end node/sensor, the device functionality, the amount and type of data sent/received, the frequency of communication, the power consumption, ease of access to the node and others. A small home camera, for example, requires Zigbee or Z-Wave to be connected to the home broadband gateway. A camera in the middle of a 200 acre farm however, requires a much longer range connectivity and depends on two-way communication that is necessary to create the ‘trigger’ for it to start transmitting information. At the same time, a camera at the traffic light needs to transmit images continuously, and therefore, needs a much higher bandwidth but is able to operate on a single-way communication.
The differences in how IoT end devices are configured, operate and the functionalities they deliver determine which connectivity works best for an application, giving rise to a shift in the way network operators run their networks. Voice, messaging and data used to move as a pack. When 3G was introduced, voice, messaging and data were all migrated to the new network. With 4G, data made the move first, and circuit-switched voice is now being replaced, albeit slowly, with VoLTE and ViLTE (and mostly, by over-the-top (OTT) apps, but that is beside the point).
Network Operators may be resigning themselves to a similar strategy for IoT, but in this segment, there will not be a one-size-fits-all network solution; rather it will require a 'technology-by-application' approach. Each application will depend on the list of factors discussed above, and the overall IoT service that is being provided.
This owes to the fact that IoT is not just about linking everything to the Internet, it is about creating value through connectivity. An IoT service therefore, has to cover all the processes end-to-end, from sending and receiving information based on pre-set rules, storing all the data, feeding that information into applications on clients’ servers or to the cloud, processing and analyzing it, and finally, providing actionable ‘outputs’ into end-users’ hands.
AT&T Digital Life Tablet Home Screen
An IoT service provider, for example, a communication service provider (CSP), will provide a connected home service as a complete package, and what determines how each home appliance is connected is the Home Area Network technology (examples include Z-Wave, Zigbee, Bluetooth and WiFi) deployed by the CSP and the connectivity option provided by the appliance manufacturers. End-users subscribe to home connectivity services as a bundle, along with the analytics and end-user apps, and in such cases, the decision on which network should be powering the service rests on the ecosystem of appliances and the CSP’s technology partners.
Smart Security by Z-Wave
Z-Wave or Zigbee for example, have been chosen by a large number of providers of connected appliances, for example, ADT and Honeywell to power their products, as well as businesses such as hotels, cruise ships, vacation rentals and in light commercial environments.
For Mobile Network Operators, their IoT portfolios vary greatly from the above. MNOs will be powering IoT services for smart metering, smart cities, telematics, vending machines, even farm animals, and each of these verticals have their own family of Internet-connected end-nodes (trackers, cameras, alarms, thermostats, street lights, traffic monitors etc) scattered over a very large area.
In these cases, MNOs will be looking at technologies such as Sigfox or LoRaWAN. Sigfox and LoRaWAN are key technologies in the Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) segment, ie networks operating in the unlicensed sub-gigahertz spectrum, which enable transmission over longer ranges and which consume minimal power, making them highly suitable for continuous transmission of small data volumes over long periods of time. With a single AA-battery, an end-node can be powered for up to 10 years on both technologies, enabling them to be deployed all over large cities, power plants, hydroelectric dams, ports, remote villages, even wildlife reserves.
With newer players entering the LPWA market, the most recent being Weightless-N and Prorep, IoT service providers and MNOs have a growing pool of options to power their services.
As for LTE, Sequans, a chip vendor based in France, is working on enabling cellular network standards such as LTE Category 1, Category 0 and eventually LTE-M for the IoT market. According to the company, Operators transitioning from 2G to LTE, as in those in the United States, will be looking at these options to move their IoT traffic to. These LTE variants for the IoT however, are expected to start becoming available only next year onwards, and in the meantime, Sigfox is beefing up its expansion across Europe and US (starting with the East Coast) while LoRA is already seeing some early adoption with Senet, a specialty network operator focused on Machine-to-Machine leveraging its technology.