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Navigate Unconventional Connectivity

The playbook for a hyper-connected world is still under construction. With nearly two-thirds of the world’s 7 billion people already connected—and about half of those by smartphones—the next big growth opportunity is to connect people and things. One challenge for service providers like AT&T, Verizon and Vodafone that are connecting devices to their networks is that things don’t communicate the same way humans do. This is prompting a change in the roles and relationships among the companies competing for long-term relationships with their customers.

Blurring Industries

AT&T Digital Life, BMW Connected Drive and Google Fiber are blurring industry lines. AT&T is a telecommunications company that has become a credible content provider with its DirecTV acquisition. BMW is an automaker that is becoming a digital platform company. Google now finds itself providing telecom services. As industry lines dissolve, each participant’s value in the chain will be redistributed as the digital technologies lower the barriers to entry. 

Engineers and designers will be faced with often competing alternatives to connect the Internet of Things. They must be nimble enough to anticipate the evolution and intersection of at least these three scenarios: heterogeneous connectivity expansion, telecom model dominance and novel connectivity options. 

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Proton: This IoT Startup has developed an IoT communications Module called Electron, which includes a cellular radio and a built-in data plan. Image: www.particle.ie

Open connectivity will win

Spectrum wars may be somewhat moot when it comes to IoT. One reason is that the high power requirements of conventional cellular connectivity make the owned spectrum impractical for low-power, low-latency applications. Another gating factor is that conventional cellular networks are not optimal for short-range connectivity, where a significant percentage of IoT devices will operate. 

Consider the automotive industry’s approach to the short-range connectivity challenge. Cars are being designed to talk to nearby cars (vehicle-to-vehicle) and to road infrastructure (vehicle-to-infrastructure) such as smart connected traffic lights and road signage. This is happening now, not on conventional cellular networks but over unlicensed spectrum in the upper 5 GHz band using an extension of the IEEE 802.11 standard, which is also the basis for Wi-Fi. 

In addition, the rising volume of things that need to connect is not yet compatible with traditional carriers’ business models, specifically in terms of pricing. One company that is navigating this roadblock is Proton. This IoT startup has developed an IoT communications module called Electron, which includes a cellular radio and a built-in data plan. By positioning itself as a mobile virtual network operator, Proton has negotiated data plans on behalf of customer companies that need to ship connected products.

Although 5G is expected to address millions of low power devices, offering speeds 100 times faster than LTE, it’s still a few years away from standardization and deployment. In the meantime, a variety of low-power, wide-area (LPWA) alternatives are vying for attention, including LTE Category 0, Ingenu, Sigfox and Zigbee. By the end of 2016, Ingenu plans to cover 30 US metro markets with its machine network, which uses random phase multiple access (RPMA) technology.

Being open to a variety of connectivity alternatives is prudent. For example, industrial companies typically have an installed base of equipment that lasts for decades. Vintage equipment requires custom sensor networks and industrial strength Ethernet to monitor turbines, mining equipment or assembly lines. New additions require newer connectivity solutions. 

Telecom model dominates

As IoT use cases emerge in smart factories, as well as in connected homes and cars, the telecom industry is finding itself operating on a number of fronts to both defend its turf and expand its reach. In the future, 5G may be the most attractive connectivity platform offered by carriers because it promises to take latency down to 1 millisecond. This will be essential in financial transactions, as well as in telepresence for medical applications, social virtual reality platforms and self-driving cars. 

Until 5G is available, carriers have a strong value proposition in 4G/LTE. This includes an unconventional game plan that takes advantage of the extremely low data usage patterns of low-power devices by pulling together techniques that enable IoT data to piggyback on the existing spectrum. By using slow transmissions-data rates measured in bits per second—connections can be established across long distances by operating on limited power. Asset tracking, fleet management and security alerts are some of the target industries/areas. 

The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) has nearly completed its NarrowBand-IOT (NB-IOT) specification, which can handle about 100,000 devices per cell and is 100 times better than standard LTE capacity. NB-IOT features narrow band-based LTE technology with extremely low power consumption, deep coverage and multiple points of connection. The approach is expected to take the cost per connection to a level that is profitable for carriers. 

On yet another front, carriers are vying to coexist with Wi-Fi. LTE-Unlicensed (LTE-U) and LTE-License Assisted Access (LAA) tap into the Wi-Fi spectrum within factories, venues and office buildings. License-exempt strategies are a way for carriers to keep their customer relationships. For example, Verizon is running LTE-U tests with chipmaker Qualcomm and Deutsche Telekom completed a trial using LTE-LAA in Nuremberg last year. 

Novel connectivity options

Not all innovation revolves around telcos and their core networks. Facebook, Google, OneWeb, SpaceX and others are experimenting with alternatives to terrestrial cell towers, as a way to eventually connect every person—and thing—on the planet to the Internet. Both Facebook and Google are exploring high-altitude platforms (HAPs) that operate in the stratosphere, well above the flight patterns of aircraft. Facebook is testing a Boeing 737-sized drone called Aqila, while Google’s Loon project is using helium balloons equipped with solar-powered wireless transmitters.

OneWeb and SpaceX have plans to launch constellations of very small, very low-earth orbit Internet satellites— about 750 miles above the planet. That’s a fraction of the distance from earth of the current generation of Internet-specific satellites. The lower orbit will improve latency.

IoT growth also requires innovation in micro-electronics. System-in-a-Package (SiP) and System-on-a-Chip (SoC) technologies are the leading contenders for delivering life support in very small form factors for IoT devices that require ultra-low power for long battery life.

The semiconductor industry will continue to search for killer apps built around common standards that justify the risk and cost of investing in new design capabilities and fab capacity. As an example, consider the number of competing connectivity standards on the market for devices with a low range and a medium-to-low data rate: Bluetooth, LTE Category 0, ZigBee and others.

All of the key players across the IoT value chain need to experiment and accept a degree of uncertainty. They must plan for a scenario in which niche and vertical applications do not produce a dominant architecture for IoT in the foreseeable future.

Takeaways

  1. Experiment with emerging technologies and monitor where consensus is building around technologies and standards.
  2. Find the opportunities in low-power, wide-area, low-latency and close-proximity connectivity.  
  3. Expect a proliferation of competing standards and protocols before the market coalesces.  
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