As the M2M and IoT markets develop, it’s important to understand the subtleties between the two, and how networks must evolve to meet their needs.
To begin, we need to look at Internet of Things (IoT) and machine to machine (M2M) as 2 different communication developments. IoT is more people-focused. Think of wearables, apps, etc. M2M is machine-focused; and pertains to sensors. Obviously, there are overlaps as well.
For these technologies to be successful, the broader ecosystem needs to be considered. This includes broadband access (fixed and mobile), Cloud computing, data centers, and data analytics.
There is still a lot of hype — particularly in the area of M2M. Obstacles include the lack of global standards and interoperability. More industry leadership is needed in guiding the potential enterprise market use of M2M. Currently developments are still very fragmented. And, while the industry talks about the power of connected information management, which includes combinations of data sets, the underlying interoperability remains a key outstanding issue. As with so many hyped-up technologies, developments will end up being more of an evolution than a revolution. Clever organizations start by looking at the low-hanging fruit, with relatively small projects, and building them out from there.
Since both IoT and M2M are basically enterprise market models this will require change in telecom business models. The drivers of this change will include: car manufacturers, electricity companies, infrastructure builders, healthcare and personal care companies, as well as the Googles, Facebooks, and Amazons of this world. Interesting developments in B2B2C (business to business to consumer) business models will see increased collaboration between telcos, IT companies, OTT companies, and the customer. Developing these new business models is easier said than done, and many of the players in the ICT industry are scrambling to find their place and role in this space.
LPWA to the Rescue
Critically important to the IoT and M2M markets is the network that connects them. Capacity is the issue for those networks. And we must remember that capacity is not just about the number of simultaneously connected nodes, it is about mean data packet length, transmission time, frequency of transmissions, and interference mitigation.
Scalability is also about the fundamental technology behind the network — from ultra-narrow band at one end of the spectrum to wide band at the other. Not surprisingly, both give rise to upsides and downsides, and the capacity sweet spot is a compromise between the two.
One of the notable “new” interest areas is in Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) Networks. Interestingly these networks have been around for a very long time, since well before modern mobile systems started to take off.
While observers had already written off LPWA as an old technology that was rapidly becoming obsolete, new developments in the connected economy brought these networks back into the limelight.
Currently, many of these systems are used for very simple applications such as switching lights on and off, checking meters, reading low frequency sensors data, and conducting certain measurements on an intermittent basis — weekly or monthly, and even over longer periods. In other words, these systems sleep more than they are active.
LPWA’s major advantage is its low cost; a major disadvantage is that the technology is based on myriad proprietary systems and solutions. The fact that it mostly operates in the unlicensed spectrum also makes the technology vulnerable to interference. Thankfully, for many of the applications in which LPWA is deployed interference is seldom an issue.
While there is a push for standardization, the sheer number of existing proprietary systems makes this difficult. However, given the interest in IoT and M2M, the organizations behind LPWA aim to use this opportunity to modernize the technology.
Weightless SIG is the organization behind advances in the next generation of LPWA. It helps develop open standard IoT connectivity technologies and manages the intellectual property right (IPR).
A new standard called Weightless-P, developed by them, has a licensed option that addresses those situations where interference is becoming an issue because of the explosion of wireless technologies.
Weightless-P is an open standard, operating in sub-GHz spectrum, with the option to work in licensed spectrum. It uses 12.5kHz narrowband technology and provides ubiquitous wide area IoT connectivity, fully acknowledged two-way wireless links, adaptive data rates up to 100kbps, and scalable cellular-inspired network technology to deliver higher capacity than existing LPWAN technologies.
Most “new” M2M and IoT services largely rely on licensed cellular, wireline, and satellite networks for their wide area connectivity requirements. However, for many low bandwidth IoT applications, traditional cellular networks are deemed too expensive due to excessive power consumption and complex protocols that lower battery life. Thus, several LPWA alternatives have emerged that specifically seek to address these concerns.
LPWA networks, on the other hand, are optimized to provide wide area coverage with minimal power consumption — typically reliant on unlicensed frequencies. LPWA devices have low data rates, long battery lives, and can operate unattended for long periods of time. Already prevalent in IoT applications such as smart metering, lighting control, and parking management, LPWA networks are expected to make a significant contribution to the M2M and IoT ecosystem. In a recent report on this market, SNS Research (http://www.snsintel.com/) estimates this market could reach $27 billion in service revenue by 2020.
Key findings include:
• The cost of a typical LPWA module is between $5 and $20, depending on the specific technology. As LPWA network deployments mature, the cost per module can drop down to as low as $1-$2 in volume quantities.
• At present, most LPWA networks operate in license-exempt spectrum, primarily in sub-GHz bands. There are a number of ongoing initiatives that call for regulators to dedicate spectrum bands exclusively for LPWA networks, as mass market adoption of unlicensed LPWA networks can result in significant interference.
• Besides optimizing their cellular networks for M2M services, mobile operators are increasingly investing in their own carrier-grade LPWA networks to support low bandwidth IoT applications.
Despite new developments in IoT, M2M and 5G, LPWA is set to maintain its position as a technology for a particular-use case at a particular price point. Nevertheless, LPWA IoT is also seen by the mobile industry as a lucrative new area, and the 3GPP standardization organization for the mobile industry has accepted 3 of their own technology proposals as standards for the narrowband low power wide area networking for the IoT. The standards aim to address the issues of both fragmentation and interference problems linked to the use of unlicensed spectrum.
The 3 technologies are: NB-IoT, EC-GPRS, and LTE-MTC.
• NB-IoT and EC-GPRS are accepted methods for machine-type communications within the GSMA.
• LTE-MTC offers another approach that was previously limited to applications few and far between. Hence, LTE-MTC’s inclusion by the 3GPP opens up the possibility that other LPWA proposals, such as LTE Category 0/1, SigFox, and LoRA, could still be included as part of future IoT networking standards.
GSMA’s backing of the 3GPP’s view obviously gives the decision a lot of weight, effectively pulling the entire mobile industry behind the 3 included standards, and leaving out all other proposals.
These are just a few of the issues surrounding networks that support IoT and M2M. In order for the promise of the IoT and M2M to be realized, ICT providers must continue to bolster the capabilities of the infrastructure. LPWA is one way to help them do just that.
The 2017 Cisco Mobile Visual Networking Index (VNI) Forecast estimates there will be 929 million wearable devices globally, growing nearly threefold from 325 million in 2016.
Globally, the number of wearable devices with embedded cellular connections will reach 69 million in number by 2021 — up from 11 million in 2016.