The broadest vision of the Internet of Things (IoT) is that of a ubiquitous worldwide fabric. There are problems with that, however: Many of the most valuable aspects of the IoT involve keeping tabs on assets that are very far away. That means that they often will be out of the range of cellular networks and, in some cases, any network at all.
The challenge is finding efficient ways to reach them. IT World’s Stephen Lawson does a good job of encapsulating the issue. He says that cellular networks cover people well but land mass, not so much. (He wrote it more eloquently than that, however.) Low-power wide-area networks (LPWANs) – which feature low power requirements and slower speeds, which are optimized for the IoT – are an emerging option.
A third layer to the solution is satellite coverage. Lawson’s piece describes a deal between AT&T and Globecomm through which customers would be able to obtain and manage combined cellular and satellite coverage. Lawson wrote that it is possible today to cobble together ad hoc satellite/cellular solutions. But, according to Globecomm Vice President of Mobile Products Gopinath Polavarapu, the Globecomm/AT&T approach is more practical and less expensive:
Enterprises can already buy terminals from satellite companies that have cellular radios, then sign up for a mobile operator’s cell service. The unified service from AT&T will make sure a device uses cellular whenever possible, checking for a signal three times before shifting over to satellite, Polavarapu said. Because cell data tends to be less expensive than satellite, this should lead to lower bills, he said.
Figuring out how to make the IoT truly worldwide is a big deal. Vodafone and Huawei this week launched a laboratory in the UK aimed at developing and bringing to market machine-to-machine (M2M) and IoT systems using narrowband networking. The story says that narrowband approaches use less power and can support more devices. They are, therefore, considered the best bet for supporting LPWANs.
It is an issue that will not be settled quickly. FierceWirelessEurope posted a feature earlier this month that described the complexity of the LPWA world. There are proprietary approaches (from Sigfox, Ingenu and LoRa, the story says) and others. Indeed, there are enough to cause headaches:
Aapo Markkanen, principal analyst at Machina Research, notes there are more technologies still. ‘Weightless-N, Weightless-P, NB-Fi (WAVIoT), Accellus, Flexnet (Sensus), Telensa UNB, and Synergize (Aclara) come to mind,’ he said. ‘And those are only the ones that are LPWA in the real sense of the term. You can also find a bunch of others that are going after many of the key applications, but they've built on a mesh architecture so they sit under a different technology umbrella.’
The piece runs through many of the normal issues in such a development path, which include timing and whether the final platform will be standards-based or proprietary.
The beauty of the IoT is that it is everywhere. It’s also the challenge: Signals need to be sent to and received from, literally, the middle of nowhere. This will take an extraordinary effort for three reasons: Many of these regions are not even covered by a network today, the endpoints will be hard or impossible to reach and so must have extraordinarily low or no power requirements, and they must be able to retain connectivity as they move between networks.
Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.