As the world becomes more and more connected — cars, homes, vending machines — the opportunity of IoT is that developers can connect almost any durable good to the internet. This is a big deal. But today, the true promise of IoT is just hype because constraints still exist around cost, battery life and network capabilities.
There is a confluence of technology changes happening in parallel that point to this eventuality. One significant change is that the vision of LTE is taking shape. Eventually, there will be two major categories of LTE that optimizes for both high- and low-consumption devices. The first operators in the world started the transition to LTE in 2014, and since that time there has been good adoption of LTE primarily for high-availability use cases or consumer mobile broadband. Now that 4G LTE has standardized in developed economies, operators are turning their attention to low-power radio network technologies to help connect more and more IoT devices and, ultimately, add subscribers to the network.
The 5G Americas working group has defined these two categories as critical IoT — devices that need high availability and very low latency, such as supporting 5G use cases like remote healthcare — and massive IoT — devices that only need a small amount of data, low power and are tolerant of network latency, for example, supporting low-power use cases like remote health monitoring.
While there is no official how-to guide for builders looking to develop innovative projects using IoT, there are a few factors developers need to consider when choosing the right connectivity for their use case, including the differences between massive and critical IoT and how APIs are the key to building systems easily.
Critical IoT is the longer-term vision for high-bandwidth and low-latency applications and devices. Mobile operators in the U.S. have already committed to building 5G networks, which will be the major enabling factor of newer critical IoT use cases. These will go beyond data collection to respond to complex scenarios that require precise actuation, automation and mission-critical communications. Virtual reality and augmented reality technologies will become more widely adopted for both consumers and businesses, and consumer demand will increase production volumes, reducing costs for businesses. Other use cases can also be adopted with better likelihood of success and more reasonable ROI, things like autonomous public transit and remote surgery. Reliability and availability are essential for critical IoT applications since there is more at stake when a connection fails or goes down.
Massive IoT and cellular LPWANs
Massive IoT is in reference to massive scale, the billions of devices, objects and machines that require connectivity even in the most remote locations and that report to the cloud on a regular basis. To reach this scale requires low-cost devices with low energy consumption and good coverage. Cellular low-power wide area network (LPWAN) options are in multiple regions where technologies are being deployed in parallel as a complement to each other. Large-scale deployments, and the resulting high-volume chipsets, are also expected to reduce chipset prices and further accelerate the growth in cellular IoT connections. LPWANs are best to fit the needs of massive IoT devices and applications, and new cellular LPWAN options are quickly emerging in the U.S.
LPWAN is long-range communication at a low bit rate. And according to ABI Research, by 2025, it’s expected that 4 billion IoT devices will rely on LPWAN networks worldwide. Taking a deeper look at cellular LPWAN networks, it’s important to note that these networks make use of existing cellular technologies, 2G, 3G and 4G LTE. There are several advantages for deploying new IoT technologies on cellular LPWAN, including the ability to scale systems very quickly because carriers already have good coverage. In the U.S., all carriers have a cellular LPWAN option, such as Cat-M1 / LTE-M. There are many new options available for developers, which makes massive IoT possible for applications including wearables, utility metering, smart trash cans or basically any durable good you can think of.
IoT is not a point solution
Understanding whether massive IoT or critical IoT makes the most sense for your project is only half the battle. Developers will need to work with many organizations and vendors if they want to piece together an end-to-end system. Connectivity is a major part of any wide area IoT project, and developers will need to deal with connectivity providers — this is where an API-first approach is paramount.
In Silicon Valley, many technology companies have been driven by the idea that they can develop a product, deploy it once and it will be live globally. This is how successful companies like Salesforce and Dropbox got started. But that is just not possible for IoT.
Building for IoT is dependent on many more factors than updating a web application. Hardware is unique, manufacturing costs can vary wildly and there are many options to choose from for connectivity. The biggest challenge in IoT connectivity relates to the intrinsic regionalization of every cellular connectivity carrier. Each has its own frequencies, technology and regulatory guidelines. Although standardization is steadily increasing, there is still a ways to go to patch all software, hardware and network fragmentation around the world.
Usually developers have an idea of what they want to do for a project, but they have more options for connectivity to choose from. Now that they know what features to optimize for, they can choose if critical or massive is right for them. We can’t wait to see what they build.
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