A decade or two from now, 2017 may well be looked back on as the year when the so-called Massive Internet of Things finally took off, enabling a fully connected life with these tens of billions of connected devices that oracles had been predicting since the beginning of the same decade.
2017, next year? You might ask with some healthy skepticism. Really? And why? Maybe simply because in 2017, the IoT industry may finally be given its QWERTY to connect the Things of the said Internet of Things.
QWERTY? Let us explain. To build an Internet of Things, of course we need Things and we also need a way to connect them in an Internetwork. As of 2016, both these two elements have been around for decades. A myriad of useful things to connect, and also a good number of technologies to interconnect them. But what was really missing so far, was a truly straightforward and appropriate way to connect them. A way that works well and reliably everywhere, that we can trust over the years, that is familiar and easy to use, and yet that can be adapted when needed and is really well suited for these Things to connect, including among others a remarkable energy efficiency to run on batteries for years and years. Also, it must be affordable enough to make economic sense.
This kind of connectivity technology is what is really needed for the Massive IoT to take off. So what about the QWERTY again? Simply that what is happening now for IoT connectivity is exactly what happened for your computer keyboard decades ago. When computers appeared, various input interfaces were created and tested for them: simple rows of switches, dials, perforated cards, temporary cables to plug and shorten given circuits, etc. But one option beat all others: the adaption of the typewriter’s alphabetical keyboard. It was a natural solution as humans use series of letters to express words all the time. Of course, the underside of the keyboard had to be adapted quite extensively for its new usage as it would not move letter hammers anymore, but the upper side was kept as is, and even the QWERTYUIOP arrangement of letters was kept even though it was not needed anymore. It was kept simply because people knew it, and their skill with typewriters could be reused, making it easy to adopt. Such was, and such is today, the power of a standard: convergence and adoption. Also, people trusted that familiar standard, because aligning letters was reliable and well suited for that new usage, as well as adaptable.
To this day, everyone still uses standard alphabetical keyboards, with some deviations of course: maybe regular ones, maybe tiny virtual ones on their smartphones, maybe even light keyboards projected onto an available flat surface. French people use AZERTY keyboards, and Germans use QWERTZ keyboards. Some prefer the exotic Dvorak keyboard or keyboards split in the middle. And of course this did not prevent the coming and sometimes going of other data input options, from the optical pen to the mouse, touchpad, trackball, trackpoint, vocal recognition… All usable as well, more optimized for special cases but less ideal for most others. Today, the QWERTY keyboard remains the king.
In 2017, the IoT connectivity might well experience this same phenomenon with the Mobile IoT technology. Defined in the global standardization organization 3GPP (the same organization that defined the 2G/3G/4G cellular communications standards used everywhere in the world) at the turn of 2015/2016, this technology is now being implemented in products by IoT vendors, so that IoT solutions providers will be able to deploy and use it en masse in 2017. The Mobile IoT technology comes from the same proven and trusted mobile cellular technologies used in smartphones, with specific evolutions meant for the IoT. In particular, it is designed as a true Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) technology, sometimes dubbed Cellular Low Power Wide Area: it has a greatly improved radio coverage that allows outdoor and deep in-door usage (even in basements), and it is extremely power efficient so that IoT devices can run and communicate on batteries for up to 20 years. These design goals have now been proven to be met and even exceeded by the first products that were field-tested across the globe. Another IoT-specific evolution of the Mobile IoT technology was that it has been expunged of all the costly features needed for the mobile broadband technologies used in smartphones, thus resulting in a technology that costs only a fraction of usual cellular technologies. All in all – truly made for IoT.
But while it meets the “3C: Coverage, Consumption, Cost” criteria which are absolutely key for the IoT market, the Mobile IoT technology also draws tremendous benefits from its compatibility with the existing mobile networks that need only be software-upgraded to run Mobile IoT services. In terms of global coverage for example, these mobile networks today are available in each and every country, from multiple operators, with a territorial coverage of virtually 100% thanks to the extended coverage features of Mobile IoT. Also, Mobile IoT provides easy continuous services across national borders, thanks to its roaming capabilities.
Another invaluable benefit of using mobile networks is the long-term availability and high reliability. These networks have actually proven their ability to scale massively through a combination of technical features, usage of cells-based topology and operation in non-interfered licensed spectrum bands. They also provide bank-level security for communications. And finally, one can serenely bet on the technology, networks and network operators to still be here in 30 years. The large number of actors in this big ecosystem also ensures a reliable supply chain, together with a healthy competition that will durably keep prices down.
So not only does Mobile IoT cater for the needs of the IoT by meeting the “3 C’s” requirements, but it also provides the benefits of mobile networks in terms of availability, durability and trust.
Now, to be precise the Mobile IoT technology comes in 3 different flavors:
- EC-GSM-IOT (sometimes shortened as EC-GSM), a 2G evolution of the GSM technology very well suited in countries with a strong existing 2G coverage
- LTE-MTC (sometimes shortened as LTE-M), an evolution of the 4G LTE technology to meet the IoT “3 C’s” criteria, with the first defined subcategory being “Category-M1”
- NB-IOT, a narrower adaptation of the 4G LTE technology, with the first defined subcategory being “Category-NB1”
The good news is that there is no need to choose between these variants because most Mobile IoT devices will operate on more than one flavor and then will simply use the variant available in a given location, just in the same way as our phones today can switch seamlessly from 2G, 3G to 4G networks. And because these 3 Mobile IoT flavors are technically so close, this is even possible under the strict cost constraints applicable in the IoT market.
So Mobile IoT is here already, with pilot projects being deployed right now across the globe, and will be massively deployed in 2017. In follow up articles, we will detail a little more how the standard Mobile IoT technologies actually do fulfill the requirements of Coverage, Consumption and Cost, and also how open and widely adopted standardization in 3GPP and elsewhere helps the deployment of IoT solutions beyond the mere connectivity layer. Until then, feel free to use the social media buttons on this page to share this article, comment it or give feedback and/or ask specific questions for upcoming articles.