As operators worldwide continue to migrate users from 3G to make available spectrum to support 5G, businesses relying on 3G for their Internet of Things (IoT) devices and applications should assess alternatives and plan for future generations.
When assessing IoT connectivity, companies must consider devices’ capacity, cost, speed, and power needs. Not all devices are created equally, and not all are ideally suited for every use.
For many IoT applications, 5G offers far more capacity at far lower latency than what’s required for most IoT use cases — and that will be the case for the foreseeable future — making it a step too far for too many applications. Additionally, 5G comes at a high cost, and since it is still being deployed, its coverage is incomplete.
The current 5G landscape leaves various flavors of LTE — known as Long Term Evolution or 4G LTE — to bridge the gap between phasing out 3G networks and introducing 5G. It is best positioned to fight to be the future cellular connectivity for mainstream IoT applications, and cellular networks are often a better fit for moving objects that need comprehensive coverage across all the areas they visit.
Before finalizing a decision, users must consider the data rates they need, latency, the environment to cover (such as rural or industrial), the balance between network speed and efficiency, and security.
Low-power, wide-area technology is a viable option
Multiple low-power wide-area (LPWA) options offer highly cost-effective, relatively low-speed, and power-efficient connections.
This technology has connected many everyday objects to the IoT, from thermostats to trash cans to utility meters. However, it will only work for a small set of very low-power devices, and its practicality is limited to stationary objects in areas that have coverage.
The utilities industry is ideal for implementing connected technologies and revolutionizing the sector. By leveraging connectivity, utility companies can transition from outdated, centralized, and inefficient practices to more agile, responsive, and automated systems closer to the point of need.
Many objects that did not previously seem like candidates for connectivity can now be transformed into smart devices, providing valuable insights into operational performance and allowing for continuous improvements. Additionally, the data generated through these systems can help entire sectors to better understand themselves.
Global coverage is seldom ubiquitous, and few options can support the speed and low latency required by some applications.
Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) also delivers a low-cost, low-power option with adequate capacity for most IoT applications. However, network roll-out has been slower than anticipated in many markets, making coverage concerns a real worry.
What is the right LTE connection?
LTE technologies blend power efficiency, relatively low-cost connectivity, and modules that provide ample capacity for many applications. Of the many LTE offerings, Cat M and Cat 1 are the most prevalent for IoT uses.
However, users have multiple options from which to choose based on their specific needs.
Versions such as Cat 1 bis offer lower performance than Cat 1 via a single antenna. The offering also presents a cost-effective option with performance that will support the needs of current 3G users.
LTE 450 is an alternative that operates on the 450MHz frequency band and is an energy-efficient and long-range option that provides a better solution than 3G. This option is suitable for less data-intensive applications commonly associated with LPWA technologies and perfect for smart meter connectivity.
Alongside LTE Cat 1 and Cat 1 bis, LTE 450 represents a suitable option after 3G sunsets.
Security and transparency must be a priority
While it’s natural to want to opt for “the latest and the greatest,” these offerings often aren’t suited for current needs — and there’s no need to invest the extra capital on technology that won’t give companies any benefit or competitive edge. LTE offerings will continue after 3G sunsets and are more than suited to meet the individual needs of IoT devices.
Security and transparency are both fundamental considerations for the IoT industry. Just as important as the connection is security and transparency. IoT modules must prioritize security from the outset, integrating industry-leading practices and standards into every aspect of development, from product architecture to firmware and software, effectively pre-empting potential vulnerabilities.
LTE technology offers a variety of performance capabilities and price options, which can be complemented by useful features like voice. This makes it a popular choice among IoT solution providers. However, the challenge for users is determining which specifications they require for specific uses and thoroughly examining each option’s performance criteria.
Given the many options available, users must realistically assess their technology needs and choose a secure option that works for today and allows them to evolve as solutions and their needs do.
Norbert Muhrer is President and CSO at Quectel.