Consider the toolbox. It contains a variety of tools, each of which has a primary purpose that it was designed to serve. But each tool can also be awkwardly misused to serve another purpose – like using a wrench as a hammer, for example – an inefficient mistake by someone in a hurry or an unfortunate mistake by someone using the toolbox for the first time and grabbing whatever is on the top to pound in a nail, whether it’s the right tool for the job or not.
I was reminded of this analogy in a recent discussion about IoT with a room full of telecommunications professionals.
When the topic of IoT connectivity for enterprise implementations came up, I was surprised at how many people seemed to think that the different kinds of IoT connectivity were essentially interchangeable; that is, at least half of the room thought that a wrench would make a perfectly good hammer.
Not so. A wrench does not make a good hammer, and Sigfox is not interchangeable with LTE-M. So in the spirit of exploring the toolbox, let’s take a high-level tour of some of the main types of IoT connectivity. (I am indebted for this information to the CO Europe Growth Incubation Team, who drew on their real-world experience with IoT implementations to help me describe each connectivity type in practical, rather than technical, terms.)
Sigfox: Miniscule data packets
Modules are inexpensive, and they all run on the single global unlicensed network that Sigfox builds and maintains themselves (making it a non-standard, proprietary solution). Device owners pay a nominal annual fee.
Sample implementation: City bike tracking system, using low-cost chips that can be placed on hundreds of bikes, which can then be tracked and located all over a large cityblanketed in Sigfox coverage.
LoRa: Small data packets
Modules are inexpensive and the network is still unlicensed, but this time you can buy your own base stations and create your own private IoT network in a particular area, or even a country-wide network. Unlike Sigfox, LoRa has an open ecosystem, allowing developers to create their own devices and gateways.
Sample implementation: Smart Parking solution within a Smart City. Parking places in city streets and parking buildings can be equipped with a parking sensor which has LoRa connectivity. Information about the parking space occupancy is sent via the LoRa network and displayed in the city control center.
NB-IoT: Small data packets
Narrow Band IoT (or LTE-NB) is the GSMA answer to Sigfox and LoRa and its device ecosystem is being built up so we expect inexpensive devices to be commercially available soon. The network, however, is part of the LTE standards family and therefore immediately offers a high level of interoperability among all the different players in the value chain. NB-IoT is also a highly reliable network because it runs over licensed spectrum and leverages all the proven SIM-based mobile security safeguards, while the narrow band gives it great indoor penetration. NB-IoT is just now beginning to be rolled out.
Sample implementation: Smart Gas Meters. Gas meters typically do not have a power connection, so batteries can run the NB-IoT module for several years, and NB-IoT’s excellent indoor penetration allows it to reach meters located deep within buildings.
LTE-M: Large data packets, voice and mobility
LTE-M stands out from other Low Power Wide Area technologies because of its throughput up to 1Mbps (enough to stream an infrared video, for example) support for mobility (handover from cell to cell while transmitting) and voice but still it is optimized for low power consumption. Some American operators have already rolled out LTE-M networks.
Sample implementation: Control system of safety drones, as demonstrated in the “Nokia Saving Lives” initiative unveiled in Dubai in February 2017. A small fleet of coordinated drones successfully located missing people in disaster areas.
Full-strength LTE: More expensive modules, full video streaming, secure network
Even though commercial LTE was not designed specifically for IoT and the chipset cost and power consumption requirements are the same as for any smartphone, it is still the best solution for high-value circumstances in which large amounts of data should be streamed securely.
Sample implementation: Video crowd analytics in an airport, which carry a continual picture stream of the flow of people, say, moving towards security, and sounds an alarm if there is unexpected or unusually fast movement or sudden traffic flow in the wrong direction.
This brief summary really only scrapes the surface of the many features and uses of these various IoT connectivity types. The important takeaway however, is that each of these methods has a very specific set of pros and cons, and no, they are not interchangeable.
Selecting the right IoT connectivity method will contribute to the creation of a well-crafted, efficient IoT system that is a pleasure to use, while selecting the wrong one will leave you with, well, something that looks like you used a wrench to pound in the nails.
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