The Internet of Things (IoT) is undoubtedly the buzzword technology of the decade. When you get industry giants such as Intel estimating that 200 billion devices will be IoT-connected by 2020, it’s hard to ignore. Why so many? Basically IoT encompasses everything you can think of with which you could possibly want to communicate. That could range from toothbrushes, kettles and fridges to meters, object trackers and fitness devices.
Most of the talk and work has centred around enhancing mobile backbone infrastructures to enable them to transmit megabytes of data at high speed. This is LTE – Long Term Evolution – the 4G (4th generation) upgrade for providing faster and higher capacity wireless data networks. It seems that we humans are hard-wired to want to do everything faster and constantly to want new, bigger and better.
But, being the complex and often contrary beings that we are, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at how often, having tried the new whizzy stuff, we then revert to the comfort of the little things with which we’re familiar. The tried and tested often creeps back into our daily lives and routines. That’s as true of technology as it is of a raft of other things in our lives, which could be why many of us tend to end up with so much clutter.
Home-improvement homily over, the IoT rocket appears to be following the same trajectory. Yes – it’s great to be able to download videos on a laptop or tablet at speed in a fast-moving car, but there are also a host of devices with much humbler requirements. They only want to transmit small packets of data infrequently; they don’t need anything like the bandwidth being postulated for the cellular networks of the future as set out by the ITU in its next-phase framework for 5th generation (5G) mobile technologies, IMT2020. They probably don’t even want to make use of any of those mobile characteristics.
“The new 5G standards aim at maintaining high quality service at high mobility, enabling the successful deployment of applications on a moving platform, such as in cars or high-speed trains” says the ITU. But in the background has been a steady chorus of voices imploring the standards setters not to forget the little things. The myriad devices that will form the backbone of the IoT and account for a large proportion of the ‘things’ included in that 200 billion figure from Intel.
And, to do them justice, the standards bodies have listened. Enter narrowband IoT: NB-IOT. Not yet a standard, but well on the way to becoming one, in conjunction with another partner designed to satisfy the needs of the so-called Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) sector. Last year saw the arrival of LTE-M, designed for machine-type communications through lower power consumption, reduced device complexity and cost and extended coverage for reaching tricky locations such as deep within buildings. LTE-M caters for applications with a higher data rate than NB-IOT allows and can transmit heftier amounts of data. It’s likely to be used for applications such as tracking objects and for wearables.
In September, 3GPP, the collaboration between seven telecoms associations which leads the standards-setting agenda, reached agreement on a proposal for the really low throughput IoT applications. That they reached the agreement seemed to come as something of a surprise to the participants, but it demonstrates the real commitment of all the players to provide a truly workable solution that will allow the market to develop and expand.
NB-IoT should provide “improved indoor coverage, support of massive number of low-throughput Things, low-delay sensitivity, ultra-low device cost, lower device power consumption, and optimised network architecture” says Qualcomm, a key player in this market. It can either be used in-band within the normal LTE carrier or standalone. It works well alongside applications that are more demanding of LTE. It also avoids the need for developing completely new networks to support IoT, which was the other option open to 3GPP.
It has been difficult for all players to accommodate – maybe even to envisage – the breath-taking breadth of devices that are expected to connect. There can be no one-size-fits-all solution. But there’s certainly been a raft of activity, with research firm Ovum reporting that “telco and tech firms spent over US$31bn on IoT-related investments and acquisitions between 2011 and 2015”. You can almost hear the chant in the background: “We want IoT! When do we want it? Now!”.
Everyone’s trying to jump on the bandwagon and develop applications – but first they need a vehicle that will support those applications. Little wonder then, that a plethora of proprietary solutions is emerging alongside the nascent standards. This, surely, must have acted as a spur to those responsible for setting standards. Imagine a world connected piecemeal fashion using a range of proprietary and incompatible architectures. And imagine trying to ensure security of operations within that scenario.
For those who want to deploy applications now, using a proprietary network may well be the only answer open to them. To be sure, many of those applications will fail, as will many of the solutions, but it’s good to see so much market activity, demonstrating such a display of optimism. u-blox has already participated in a highly successful pre-standardisation NB-IoT trial to read hard to access water meters in a village in Spain over an existing telecoms network.
For now, it’s a case of so many horses, so many courses. There are sure to be a lot of fallers. But it’s good to know that they can at least all set off from the starting gates heading in the same direction!