For long-time tech industry observers, many of the primary concepts behind business-focused Internet of Things (IoT) feel kind of old. After all, people have been connecting PCs and other computing devices to industrial, manufacturing, and process equipment for decades.
But there are two key developments that give IoT a critically important new role: real-time analysis of sensor-based data, sometimes called “edge” computing, and the communication and transfer of that data up the computing value chain.
In fact, enterprise IoT (and even some consumer-focused applications) are bringing new relevance and vigor to the concept of distributed computing, where several types of workloads are spread throughout a connected chain of computing devices, from the endpoint, to the edge, to the data center, and, most typically, to the cloud. Some people have started referring to this type of effort as “fog computing.”
Critical to that entire process are the communications links between the various elements. Early on, and even now, many of those connections are still based on good-old wired Ethernet, but an increasing number are moving wireless. Within organizations, WiFi has grown to play a key role, but because many IoT applications are geographically dispersed, the most important link is proving to be wide-area wireless, such as cellular.
A few proprietary standards such as Sigfox and Lora, that leverage unlicensed radio spectrum (that is, unmanaged frequencies that any commercial or non-commercial entity can use without requiring a license) have arisen to address some specific needs and IoT applications. However, it turns out traditional cellular and LTE networks are well-suited to many IoT applications for several reasons, many of which are not well-known or understood.
First, in the often slower-moving world of industrial computing, there are still many live implementations of, along with relatively large usage of, 2G networks. Yes, 2G. The reason is that many IoT applications generate tiny amounts of data and aren’t particularly time-sensitive, so the older, slower, cheaper networks still work.
Many telcos, however, are in the midst of upgrading their networks for faster versions of 4G LTE and preparing for 5G. As part of that process, many are shutting down their 2G networks so that they can reclaim the radio frequencies previously used for 2G in their faster 4G and 5G networks. Being able to transition from those 2G to later cellular technologies, however, is a practical, real-world requirement.
Second, there’s been a great deal of focus by larger operators and technology providers, such as Ericsson and Qualcomm, on creating low-cost and, most importantly, low power wide area networks that can address the connectivity and data requirements of IoT applications, such as smart metering, connected wearables, asset tracking and industrial sensors, but within a modern network environment.
The two most well-known efforts are LTE Cat M1 (sometimes also called eMTC) and LTE Cat NB1 (sometimes also called NB-IoT or Narrowband IoT), both of which were codified by telecom industry association 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project) as part of what they call their Release 13 set of specifications. Cat M1 and NB1 are collectively referred to as LTE IoT.
Essentially, LTE IoT is part of the well-known and widely deployed LTE network standard (part of the 4G spec—if you’re keeping track) and provide two different speeds and power requirements for different types of IoT applications. Cat M1 demands more power, but also supports basic voice calls and data transfer rates up to 1 Mbps, versus no voice and 250 kbps for NB1. On the power side, despite the different requirements, both Cat M1 and NB1 devices can run on a single battery for up to 10 years—a critical capability for IoT applications that leverage sensors in remote locations.
Even better, these two can be deployed alongside existing 4G networks with some software-based upgrades of existing cellular infrastructure. This is critically important for carriers, because it significantly reduces the cost of adding these technologies to their networks, making it much more likely they will do so. In the U.S., both AT&T and Verizon already offer nationwide LTE Cat M1 coverage, while T-Mobile recently completed NB1 tests on a live commercial network. Worldwide, the list is growing quickly with over 20 operators committed to LTE IoT.
In fact, it turns out both M1 and NB1 variants of LTE IoT can be run at the same time on existing cellular networks. In addition, if carriers choose to, they can start by deploying just one of the technologies and then either add or transition to the other. This point hasn’t been very clear to many in the industry because several major telcos have publicly spoken about deploying one technology or the other for IoT applications, implying that they chose one over the other. The truth is, the two network types are complementary and many operators can and will use both.
Of course, to take advantage of that flexibility, organizations also require devices that can connect to these various networks and, in some cases, be upgraded to move from one type of network connection to another. Though not widely known, Qualcomm recently introduced a global multimode modem specifically for IoT devices called the MDM9206 that not only supports both Cat M1 and Cat NB1, but even eGPRS connections for 2G networks. Plus, it includes the ability to be remotely upgraded or switched as IoT applications and network infrastructures evolve.
Like many core technologies, the world of communications between the billions of devices that are eventually expected to be part of the Internet of Things can be extremely complicated. Nevertheless, it’s important to clear up potential confusions over what kind of networks we can expect to see used across our range of connected devices. It turns out, those connections may be a bit easier than we thought.