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Providers expand global IoT connectivity from 4G networks

4G LTE currently holds the key position for international IoT connectivity, linking up automobiles, elevators and more, but the implementation of 5G and satellites is imminent.

Major international mobile operators and IoT-focused virtual network providers have started to offer global IoT connectivity using embedded SIM cards and cellular networks to give enterprise customers widespread machine-to-machine service availability.

For example, devices in automobiles and shipping containers use 2G, 3G, 4G and LTE-M links to roam globally. Although no provider currently offers service in all 195 countries in the world, worldwide IoT service is more consistent than it was even five years ago. For example, AT&T offers data connections in 135 countries and Verizon services 170 countries.

In Asia, Europe and North America, providers are phasing out 2G and 3G networks. IoT-specific low-power wide-area cellular LTE-M and NB-IoT networks are being introduced across much of the world, but 4G LTE will still be standard data connection for many IoT devices worldwide.

"Global connectivity has never been more important. It allows a service provider to provision customers that need national connectivity, anywhere in the world, as well as those that explicitly need cross-border connectivity," said Jamie Moss, research director at tech market advisory firm ABI Research.

Who are the major global IoT connectivity providers?

Many large mobile network operators (MNOs) are expanding their reach so that IoT devices can connect globally. MNOs serve as a trusted technology and roaming partner for enterprises that want to provide worldwide coverage for sensors, asset trackers and industrial IoT gateways.

Jamie Moss, research director, ABI ResearchJamie Moss

The major IoT service provider in the U.S., AT&T, offers a global IoT SIM card to get customers connected to an international LTE data plan. A plan that supports a 500 KB data call a month costs $2.99 to get the card and start the service, and 99 cents in recurring charges. An enterprise customer would buy many more SIM cards for their international service, and AT&T provides international roaming and pooled data for up to 25,000 devices. The position is similar for the large IoT-specific mobile virtual networks operators, such as Aeris Communications or Kore Wireless, with SIM cards costing a couple of dollars each to set up.

IoT module vendors must also work with carriers to build a global network presence.

Global connectivity has never been more important. It allows a service provider to provision customers that need national connectivity, anywhere in the world, as well as those that explicitly need cross-border connectivity.
Jamie MossResearch director, ABI Research

"Newer entrants to the device-to-cloud managed services market -- module vendor Telit, for example -- have had to forge tier 1 carrier partnerships to build a global virtual [radio access network], as they sell their modules worldwide into every imaginable use case," Moss said.

These IoT deals will encompass hundreds of thousands of connections worldwide. Despite a drop-off in wholesale roaming revenue in 2020 and 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, roaming research specialist Kaleido Intelligence expects that wholesale roaming revenue from consumer and IoT traffic will exceed pre-COVID-19 levels in 2022, with revenues exceeding $20 billion in 2025, an average annual growth rate of 28%. Even with the ongoing pandemic, major operators continued to expand global IoT connectivity and added customers in 2020 and 2021.

"When Vodafone announced it had reached 100 million IoT connections served in Q3 2020, that was not simply because of the quality or footprint of its multiple national operating companies, but because from day one it has built its IoT business on the fundamental need to serve connections anywhere in the world for a guaranteed price point. Regardless of how many connections need to roam, global connectivity is strategically vital," Moss said.

How do organizations use global IoT connectivity?

The biggest international IoT connectivity customer wins are kept under wraps by MNOs and MVNOs, Moss said. Some of the highest profile wins are with auto OEMs, and many of the customer examples are under NDAs. Major public examples include a deal signed by Copenhagen, Denmark-headquartered multinational shipping company Maersk with AT&T to track and monitor the condition of refrigerated containers and an agreement between German elevator company ThyssenKrupp and Vodafone to use the telecom service provider's IoT technology in its lifts worldwide.

Major enterprises are the main customers for global IoT connectivity. 4G LTE cellular networks will be cornerstone technology for global IoT for the foreseeable future. Low earth orbit satellite constellations -- often using LPWAN links -- are just starting to come online and will provide true global coverage even on oceans but won't offer the data packet capacity of most cellular IoT networks.

A 5G massive machine-type communications specification for IoT using the NB-IoT spec will be commercialized in the summer of 2022, according to market analysts. However, 5G roaming for IoT, will not come into play right away, leaving 4G LTE as the standard for global IoT connectivity for years to come.

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