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Picking an IoT network
Here is Novotech's guide to helping you choose the best network to connect your IoT devices to. This one covers the cellular-based networks, while part 2 covers all of the non-cellular options, including Wi-Fi, Ethernet, Bluetooth and two newer wireless entrants, SigFox and LoRa.
To get started, here is a bit about me; I have been in the field of what is now called IoT for about 20 years, working in a variety of areas which has given me a unique level of exposure to assist people in their IoT journey. Novotech has also been in the IoT space for about 20 years and is in an excellent place to help you with any aspect of your IoT journey.
List of Cellular options
It used to be that there was always a current latest and greatest network that was set up for smartphones and tablets and IoT devices just piggy-backed on that. While this is still the case for new networks like 4G and soon, 5G, there are now dedicated IoT networks that are optimized to maximize your experience while lowering down costs. This enables billions of devices to be connected, changing every aspect of our life. But what is the optimal network for you? There are a ton of factors: connection speed, latency, and power consumption are three important ones, but local and international coverage and device availability also often need to be taken into account. Let's go through each of these options, point out five key things (some good, some bad) to outline the option, as well as to point out a few typical applications for each. Finally, network availability plays a critical factor in your choice, and this has two similarities to the weather forecast- it tends to be very specific to your area, and it can often change quickly. You want to ensure coverage in your desired area before purchase.
Depending on where you live in the world, you may view 2G very differently. In some parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, 2G may be the network that serves significant parts of where you live. For most other areas, 2G is starting to see its decline in usage, so you want to be careful in choosing 2G. Be sure that you can get your devices activated. Assuming you can, here are five things to know about it. It is an extremely proven and battle-tested network technology, having been used for over a decade by millions of IoT-devices. It provides a reliable platform for applications that do not feel the need for speed, more on that in a second.
Virtually the entire world has 2G coverage, although, some areas are starting to deactivate the technology. As of a few years ago, it was the only technology that you could be assured to have blanketed coverage in most areas. It made its name by its ability to be used for tracking and monitoring. Tracking involved sending GPS location updates for devices and monitoring involved sending usage and levels from crucial devices in the field. Those are its strengths.
On the negative side, besides tracking and monitoring, it didn't take much to top out on speed on 2G. If you recall, the first iPhone was on 2G, and it was not a speedster for web traffic. It is okay for text and small messages, but forget sending live video feeds without annoyingly long buffer periods.
Finally, in many parts of the world, it is time to say goodbye to the network that helped to fuel a lot of the growth of IoT. I would not recommend using 2G for any area of North America, and you want to do some significant research for deployments in all other areas.
Assuming you find that coverage is not an issue, it is the only technology that can indeed be considered for truly Worldwide Tracking applications unless you want to go into satellite, which we cover in the 2nd part. A typical application is Security Panels. Many panels either came with an embedded 2G module or were connected via low cost 2G basic modems. If your device is at least a few years old and has embedded cellular technology, the chances are that it uses 2G technology. This is common in applications like utility sites and communications closets, as shown here in the picture.
Finally, 2G was great for Basic SCADA applications. For those of you who are rusty on your IoT acronyms, SCADA stands for Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition. So, to quickly explain, take a parking gate. The SC part allows you to lift the gate by sending a command and the DA part would let you know how many cars went by
The next network technology that we are going to talk about is 3G. This was the network that started the explosive growth of the smartphone and is still running strong in most parts of the world. Many parts of rural North America still fall back to 3G. 3G offered a big jump over 2G, in terms of speed, and that opened up several important applications. It also lowered down the latency, making it more applicable for applications that were sensitive to it. It is not 5G speeds, but it is plenty quick for many applications.
Like 2G, it has a pretty extensive world-wide footprint. Virtually all industrialized countries are blanketed in 3G coverage, and many 2nd and 3rd world nations have at least urban centers covered with 3G. One exciting new development of 3G was how it introduced MMS, or Multi-media messaging. So, thank it for the craze of sending YouTube clips to your friends. While it offers an excellent platform for many IoT platforms, it did use a significant amount more power than 2G devices, meaning that it was not as optimized for battery-based deployments. It is not a full-blown power hog, but you may wish to consider this if power usage needs to be at a minimum.
Finally, although not as far down the path of leaving as 2G, it is saying goodbye in many areas. It is challenging to load any net new 3G devices onto carriers in North America, so be sure to do your research before choosing 3G.
Assuming coverage and network availability is not an issue, one application that it was great for was Digital signage. The nature of a digital sign was that it is mostly a monitoring application, monitoring for things like burnt lightbulbs and only in the off-hours new material be sent. 3G was optimal for this. If you are in North America, CAT-1 may be a great alternative, which we cover in a few slides. Basic Field Force automation sounds complicated, but it is not. This combines using GPS tracking to locate your work vehicles, as well as allowing your team to look up work orders, bring down safety documents and blueprints and to alert if there is an issue. Because of its widespread coverage (and the fact that it could fall back to 2G in most cases), it is still a great choice.
Utility monitoring was often done using 2G, and in many cases, it was sufficient. However, some of these applications had requirements to send down updates and commands, so 3G's lower latency and Out of Band Management is a very under-utilized application. Many IT teams want to move the management of their essential routers away from being done locally, in the event of a break-i. For years, POTS dial-in lines were used, but many replaced those with cellular gateways. 3G offered enough speed to be used both as an out of band option, as well as to provide a viable backup in the event the main line became unavailable. 3G has had a great life but is now starting the gradual slide towards obsolescence in many areas of the world, so be sure to do your homework before choosing it.
The first of the speedster networks, 4G is blazingly fast. It offers an incredible platform to use for a variety of applications and is the current fastest network available commercially today. If your deployment is happening in 2019, and you have speed as your determining factor, this is where you need to look.
So, how fast is it? Just watch all of the kids downloading YouTube videos on the bus to see that it is sufficient to replace a high-speed connection for most applications.
It is excellent at video, such as video conferencing as it had a relatively low level of latency, one that is much better than 3G. This means a better experience in doing things like video conference calls like Skype.
As it is the network that carriers have pushed for their smartphones for the past few years, there has been much work done to make sure that it works well while mobile. Its speeds in a mobile environment, as well as its stability, is very impressive. 4G's performance is one of the reasons why you need to reach for your power cord on your iPhone or Android device more often, as this performance comes at the cost of using more power. Many IoT applications are more power conscious, making 4G a lousy choice.
The other main issue with 4G is cost. If you are putting a 4G module into a $1000 smartphone, the cost of the module is not prohibitive. However, if you are building a tracking device, its cost premium over other technologies was not justified, especially since you could not benefit from its extra speed. In terms of applications, Public Safety loved 4G. It offered sufficient speed to allow workers to download large documents like mugshots and building blueprints while being able to fall back to 3G in rural areas. Mobile retail is a widespread application. It may mean merely moving outside into the parking lot, in the case of a store who has seasonal offerings like a nursery, it may be a food truck, or it may be temporary retail at a trade show. In either case, 4G offered more than enough speed for transactions, inventory look-ups and more. Transit / Trains usage of 4G saw explosive growth. The available speed offered enough bandwidth to track the buses, process payments as well as to offer Wi-Fi to passengers as a way to attract more people to ride the bus.
Finally, Disaster Recovery applications need speed, but more importantly, need quick setup. They have been significant users of cellular-based technology. 4G offered enough bandwidth to run an entire command center while falling back to older technologies in more rural areas. 4G is the current speed leader, at least until the next technology makes its long-anticipated debut. It has a very long life ahead of it and is an excellent choice for those needing speed. If you feel the need to go supersonic, look at the next choice.
Welcome to the bullet train of cellular technologies. There has been talk for a decade about how people would truly cut the cord at home and in the office and opt only for cellular-based communication. This was tough to do, but 5G can make it a reality for millions.
To start, I am running out of adjectives to describe its speed. I am calling it stupid fast, but for a reason. Its initial launch speed is faster than most people have at their home and office, so that makes it appealing. However, it can grow to hundreds of times faster than 4G. This begs the question, who needs that? This is why I call it stupid fast, as it is so fast that no one needs that kind of speed.
The other main gain over 4G is its lower latency. Applications, such as mobile surgery, are a distinct possibility as the latency is as close to real-time as we have seen in cellular technology. It is so fast that it can eliminate buffering in most video applications.
The final benefit is capacity. Every cellular technology optimized the use of the radio waves better than its predecessor, allowing for more users to share the same infrastructure. 5G takes that to the next level, allowing up to 1M users per square mile, which is staggering.
Ok, sounds perfect. Well- not quite. This performance comes at a cost, as its components are multiple times more than any other network, making it difficult to justify for most IoT applications. It is also cumbersome in the power usage department, making it the gas guzzler of cellular technologies. Still, smartphone manufacturers are racing to get out 5G phones in 2019, but you should not rush out to buy one. Most areas will not see optimized 5G coverage in 2019, so if you are buying a 5G phone in 2019, you will spend an awful lot of time on 4G networks in most areas. So, assuming you have coverage and are willing to pay the premium price for it, what application will benefit the most from 5G's incredible capabilities? The first is Autonomous cars. The average car will transmit up to 1000x what the average person does each year, and much of this traffic is time-sensitive. It will use all of the capabilities of 5G wherever it is available.
As mentioned, many expect a lot of consumers and businesses to cut the wireless connection from their home and office. This means that if you are building Business / Residential landline replacement product, like a gateway, 5G needs to be on your radar.
Ok, I still think I would prefer to have a surgeon look over me when they operate, like in this picture. However, if you are remote and getting to a hospital is not a viable option, 5G offers a platform to make Mobile Surgery / real-time healthcare a true possibility for the first time.
Finally, 5G will change the Entertainment space dramatically. Its speeds, capacity, and lower latency will accelerate the growth of technologies like AR/VR and will allow real-time, interactive games like Fortnite to be played in virtually real-time, thanks to its real-time nature.
CAT-1 is the first of the IoT-focused networks that we are going to talk about. It is the Goldilocks of IoT networks. It offers a decent level of data speed, enough for not only tracking applications but to transfer a significant amount of data when needed. However, it offers a low enough level of power consumption to make it a viable option for many mobile based applications. It is also the "slowest" network that fully supports 2-way voice communications. Still, it doesn't get the respect it deserves as many opt for the speed demons like 4G/5G or the low-power options like CAT-M. This is a consideration that most people should look at. As mentioned, it is ideal for 2-way voice communication, such as in the case of intercoms and alarm systems.
For the vast majority of IoT applications, it offers plenty of throughput speed. This makes it an ideal balance for those applications that want to maximize battery life, but still, need to push down updates. Unlike 5G, which has little or no coverage, most areas of North America are well covered by CAT-1 networks today, making it an ideal network for most deployments. It also has an expected long-life ahead of it.
Its flexibility is also one of its main issues, and it is not great at anything. It is also not bad at anything, but most people tend to flock towards one of the extremes available. They want the speed from 4G / 5G, or they want the extremely long battery life from some of the next two networks. Cat-1 does not excel at either, so it gets put aside many times.
Finally, the explosive growth in 4G means that there is no shortage of hardware choices available. The same is expected on the low-battery use side with CAT-M as 2019 progresses. CAT-1 has several options, but if you are looking for a particular choice, the selection may not be as great.
Still, it is ideal for many applications, including Voice-based Mobile Applications. Many people overlook voice, considering that most people are using text messaging and Instagram more than ever. However, many applications, including those where we help find our loved ones, benefit from the addition of voice on-board. The next application is Mobile health monitoring, as shown in the picture. While it could be done using either 4G or even CAT-M, CAT-1's balance of cost vs. Speed make it a better choice for this kind of application.
Similarly, Digital Signage is a perfect application for CAT-1 and should be your choice, assuming that 3G is not a viable option for you. It provides you with a lower cost hardware option, but one that is capable of downloading your new content fairly quickly.
Finally, there are ATM / Kiosks. Like Digital Signage, they may be able to work in many cases on a CAT-M network, as they are not that data-heavy applications. However, these devices need to make quick firmware updates in many cases, so the extra cost for a CAT-1 device over a CAT-M device is pretty easy to justify. CAT-1 may be the Goldilocks of network choices, but it offers a much more flexible platform than most people realize, and it should be on your radar more often than it likely it.
While 5G has received the most media attention, CAT-M may be the network that is the most anticipated in the world of IoT and for a good reason. By taking out what you don't need (low latency and high-speed data throughput), it will become the default standard for most IoT applications in 2019 and beyond. By taking out speed and offering a higher latency, this allowed designers to remove a lot of the components that are required. This offers a few benefits, the first being very low power usage. When you have a lower usage of power, this allows you to use a smaller battery, lowering cost and the size of the unit.
The second benefit to fewer components is a smaller footprint. Although some manufacturers may choose to keep the cellular module for CAT-M the same size as other technologies, others will reduce the size, allowing it to fit into smaller designs, maximizing its appeal. I don't want to make it sound like it is only optimal for text-based traffic. Although I would not recommend watching YouTube over a CAT-M connection, it allows enough bandwidth to upload reports and to send down firmware updates ... just not at 5G speeds. It has two significant issues to it, depending on your needs and timelines. The first is its extremely high latency or time to send data back and forth. It would be the ground option if you were to compare it to a courier company. As long as you are ok with the extra time to send/receive your data, this may not be an issue
The other issue in 2019, especially, may be coverage. Although cellular carriers are working quickly to deploy the network everywhere, they may not have optimal coverage in all places in 2019, especially in rural areas and in some in-building systems. However, since it is a relatively easy deployment for the carriers to do, this won't be an issue for too long.
The first kind of application that CAT-M is going to see heavy usage for is in the Wearables / Personal tracker space. Most people using these devices are not likely to be heavy data users, and most data is not extremely time sensitive. Even if it is used for a panic alarm, it may cause an extra few seconds delay, which is not a deal-breaker in most cases. If it is, 4G or 5G may be warranted. The next application is for Heavy equipment monitoring. While some devices may produce a lot of data, most companies will not feel the need to transmit it wirelessly, but instead will look for updates on key readings and locations. Something that CAT-M is optimized for. The term “environmental systems” is quite broad, as it can refer to monitoring things like the pH level of a river, the light level at a baseball stadium or the level of ice on a roadway. In any of these cases, plus many more, CAT-M offers the perfect balance.
Finally, most Fleet operators are looking at CAT-M based solutions to replace existing 3G solutions, as it allows for a Lower overall cost and battery usage without sacrificing performance. In short, CAT-M is set to become the dominant North American IoT network in 2019, and if you don't need a lot of speed and are ok with a higher latency than 4G, it should be on your radar.
The Final cellular network option is one that seems to have a lot of secrecy, as it is availability, so while it should be on your radar, you will need to do a lot of research, and that is NB-IoT or NB1. Once it is available, it has the potential to open up tens of billions of IoT devices and applications that may not have been financially feasible, even using a low-cost technology like CAT-M.
While CAT-M is low power, NB-IoT looks to be even lower, lengthening the time between the charge for power sensitive applications. While I have not seen pricing yet, the early indications are that modules and gateways will be the lowest cost of any technology- stay tuned. While we will cover Wi-Fi and Bluetooth in Part 2, they have a decent place for many applications that are based at home, in the office, or where the device uses your smartphone for communications. The low cost of both components and connectivity for NB-IoT means that it becomes a viable alternative for many companies to use cellular technology in many of these applications. No technology is perfect for every application and NB-IoT has its limitations for many. It is extremely slow, it has even longer latency times than CAT-M, and unlike CAT-M, it is only recommended for use in a fixed environment.
The other drawback is that depending on what part of the world you are in, there may be limited (or no) coverage, so do your research before going too far down this path.
Assuming you have coverage, the first application that screams for NB-IoT is Industrial Machine monitoring. The lower cost and battery needs will bring down the cost of deployment, opening up the addressable market for IoT by tens of billions of devices that it now makes sense to monitor. Similarly, its low power use makes it ideal for Energy Monitoring applications like remote wells and pipelines.
Many devices that companies want to monitor do not use power, such as fencing at a
construction site, where a company wants to know if they are moved. The cost of a battery-operated device in the past using cellular was way too high to make financial sense, but that will change with NB-IoT in most cases
Finally, companies often only wanted to monitor a single variable at a location, such as the temperature of crucial storage space. Installing a gateway for a single sensor made little sense, but it was required to bring back the information. NB-IoT allows for the use of standalone sensors, eliminating the gateway, and opening up potentially trillions of sensors to be monitored using cellular-based technology.
Here are all of the networks, with their score on four critical categories outlined.
Do remember, the difference between some of these things may be vast on some, and the difference may be less on others. As an example, the difference in power usage, while it may be huge from 5G to NB-IoT, it is not like you need to build a nuclear power plant to power a 5G connection. However, it is a factor in your deployment.
The first consideration is Data Speed. You need to determine what you need for speed, not just for day to day use, but what might you need during a time of heavy use and what flexibility you wish to have for your deployment. If your plan is to one day do a live streaming video from a site, the choice of CAT-M now will mean that you have to upgrade much sooner than you may wish.
In terms of network latency, most applications are not that sensitive, meaning that if it takes up to a few seconds to send critical pieces of information, it will not change the performance. However, this is not the case for things like video surveillance, which may see a lot of undesired buffering. Power use often varies by how you are powering the device. A cellular module may use the majority of power in some mobile devices, but it not even notice if it is used in a high-power device like an HVAC unit. Generally, devices powered by AC power are not as power conscious, whereas devices powered by battery tend to put more of an emphasis on lower power use.
Finally, like Power usage, the cost may or may not be an issue, depending on the overall cost of the deployment. Some devices that use cellular cost 10s of thousands of dollars, and although companies still look for the best deal, the cost of the module is not a massive factor in the overall price of the device. This is not the case for mobile trackers, where the module may be the single most significant cost.
It is important to remember, before we leave this slide, that you are not limited to using a single technology. Most companies use multiple technologies, depending on the needs of a particular deployment. Depending on your hardware choice, the move from one technology to another may be quite seamless as well.
As a reminder, these are only half of the choices that you have for connecting to your IoT devices; in part two, we will cover popular network choices like Ethernet, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi. Lesser known choices like SigFox and Lora and we will also cover Satellite and private radio, which have a long history of use in many industrial and remote applications.