What is the Best Network Type for Your Critical IoT Operations?
By Nick Koiza
Tuesday, May 18, 2021 | Comments

Several technology options exist for deploying IoT solutions focused on critical needs. These principally fall into two low-power wide area (LPWA) network classifications: licensed 4G and 5G cellular, and non-cellular LPWA.

The Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) has defined cellular LPWA network standards offering various IoT approaches. In the case of 4G, connectivity choices include narrownand IoT (NB-IoT) and LTE-M, while 5G promises New Radio IoT (NR-IoT). Commonly adopted technologies in the non-cellular category include Sigfox and LoRa. It is necessary for user organisations to assess key drivers and operational requirements before deciding on cellular or non-cellular networks.

Non-cellular LPWA Networks
The most common non-cellular LPWA networks are Sigfox and LoRa, which utilise unlicensed bands. These operate on the basis that IoT sensors remain inactive much of the time; however, devices will wake up at frequent intervals or when a preconfigured threshold is reached. Once data is transmitted over the Internet, an IoT platform will typically be used to process it.

The use of unlicensed bands can be advantageous given that licensed spectrum is often a scarce resource and expensive to procure. Instead, users can operate on a free industrial, scientific and medical (ISM) frequency band.

Technologies such as Sigfox and LoRa offer strong encryption and low power consumption; compared to 4G – one hundredth of the power in the case of Sigfox. This is a significant factor for ensuring device longevity. Whilst sensors are ‘asleep’, battery life can be prolonged. The potential for wide coverage and long range is also good. With Sigfox, 18 to 31 miles in rural environments is not uncommon, while up to 6 miles is possible in urban environments. It should also be noted that such private wireless sensor networks are considerably more cost effective to deploy than cellular technologies.

However, there is a restriction associated with using the ISM band. Despite being free, users are obliged to adhere to a policy limiting their use of available bandwidth, such that large quantities of data cannot typically be transferred. In addition, data rates are small; LoRa offers 50 kilobits per second (kbps) at best, and therefore some non-cellular LPWA solutions are optimized for communications.

A notable disadvantage is that unlicensed LPWA technologies can lead to greater interference among devices and thus reduced efficiency, a consequence of other applications being permitted to use the same radio spectrum segment.

4G Cellular
NB-IoT and LTE-M options are simplified versions of regular 4G, which are available via commercial networks managed by mobile operators. In addition, public safety and other operators/users have the possibility to obtain dedicated private LTE systems from leading manufacturers such as Nokia and Ericsson.

LTE-M offers good reliability, low latency and higher data rates than non-cellular LPWA networks, around 4 Megabits per second (Mbps) in 3GPP Release 14. It targets mobility for reliable data transfer whilst on the move and is likely to be an attractive option for mission-critical users requiring real-time applications.

Users can take advantage of large commercial networks and are thus not limited to smaller private versions; although, in the case of unlicensed LPWA, public networks are also becoming available. Given that both LTE options are built on top of 4G, users can be assured of relatively secure future proof solutions.

Operators who own and manage networks, and have bought a license for their spectrum, can ensure their infrastructure uses dedicated frequency for connections. This enables greater control and enhanced data rates while also reducing radio interference levels.

However, power consumption can be significant on certain sensor-based IoT deployments. A ramification of high energy usage is the need for larger and more powerful batteries. This may increase the size of IoT sensor devices, which can render certain use cases impractical. Another important aspect is the cost of LTE, which can be significant when taking into consideration network subscription tariffs and radio chipset expenditure.

However, efforts to address the above constraints are being made, with NB-IoT targeting a low power solution for limited data throughput, and hardware costs expected to decrease in the future. With a maximum range of less than 6 miles, NB-IoT is not quite a match for non-cellular LPWA options, and the same applies to LTE-M.

5G Cellular
Although still early from the perspective of IoT deployment using 5G, the technology promises to significantly increase the number of potential devices. With massive machine type communications (MMTC), connection density of circa 1 million devices per square kilometre may be possible.

Other important factors to consider are that NR-IoT targets improved efficiency in IoT connectivity as well as extremely low power, with scope for battery lifecycles exceeding 10 years. It is also forward compatible with LTE-M and NB-IoT.

5G also stands to benefit users of resource intensive applications, as enhanced mobile broadband (EMBB) will facilitate new IoT use cases requiring high volume data such as streaming video applications for public safety and AI-driven camera solutions, integrated with widespread IoT devices for powerful sensing in smart cities. However, this is all very much in the future.

Critical IoT Applications
Users within government and commercial sectors have benefitted from legacy machine-to-machine (M2M) applications including sensor-based police vehicle telematics, remote utilities monitoring and asset tracking. The experience gained places these user organizations in a good position to consider the first wave of IoT replacement systems.

Considering use cases within smart city and public-safety markets, where forthcoming critical IoT solutions promise to deliver considerable benefits, we can already assess recent customer installations based on unlicensed LPWA and 4G technologies.

Smart Cities
The adoption of wide-scale smart city platforms integrating urban data and sensing solutions has already begun for traffic management and streetlight connectivity, for example. In this specific area, private LPWA networks are currently leading the way.

For example, PLANet from Telensa is a wireless smart city control system initially targeting streetlight control, but now being used for broader IoT applications. Providing support for almost two million lights globally, PLANet presently represents the world’s largest IoT smart city streetlight solution.

Telensa was able to demonstrate how non-cellular LPWA technology could be used to handle ranges exceeding 10 miles, with a single base station also supporting 5,000 sensor nodes. The deployment also showed how a license-free radio system could be used to enable effective communications between hundreds of thousands of sensor nodes over city-wide areas, all with minimal running costs.

The monitoring and control of streetlights has become the backbone of global smart cities, initially driven by the need to save energy and reduce costs but rapidly becoming the ubiquitous hub through which all manner of urban data feeds are collated.

Public Safety
Despite the higher costs of LTE, we are already witnessing the deployment of citywide IoT solutions for safety-critical applications using NB-IoT.

An example can be found in America, where major cities have experienced hundreds of manholes catching fire and exploding every year, with consequences ranging from serious injury to fatality. Bad weather, road salting and flooding interacting with aging underground power infrastructure have caused serious issues. But, these have been successfully resolved using the Sentir IoT solution developed by CNI Guard in partnership with Plextek, resulting in the prevention of further incidents.

An important point to highlight is the role that powerful analytics plays in identifying and predicting conditions that could lead to potential disasters and in ensuring effective preventative measures. Such analytics are fundamental to fulfilling the primary goal of critical IoT, which is to rapidly gain valuable insights from data to assist decision making. Without these, IoT cannot be considered truly ‘smart’ and thus runs the risk of being reduced to the level of legacy M2M, which we have now moved on from.

As outlined above, typical IoT use cases require that sensor devices only transfer limited amounts of data at certain times or when specific events occur. Under such circumstances, low latency and high data rates are not necessarily the most significant considerations, at least until 5G potentially enables a new breed of critical IoT use cases.

Important success factors include the need to ensure low power consumption for long device lifecycles and low technology costs for good return on investment, as well as wide coverage and connectivity across large quantities of devices.

Cellular networks are certainly well placed to service sectors willing to pay for ultra-low latency and high quality of service. Public safety is considered a highly applicable market in this regard. Non-cellular LPWA networks have shown that they can effectively fulfil wide-ranging needs, such as in smart city, utilities and airport markets. There are likely to be other opportunities, particularly for commercial users, to benefit from the long range, low-power and low-cost characteristics of these wireless sensor networks for critical IoT deployment.

Nick Koiza is the head of the security business at Plextek. Koiza’s focus at Plextek is helping organizations in the global public-safety, critical communications and security sectors with their strategic positioning and technological capability. Koiza has a long and successful track record across the public safety, worldwide communications and security sectors with senior management positions in public and private companies spanning IT, technology and communications. Prior to joining Plextek, Koiza worked at Sepura, Portalify and Simoco, where he developed a strong reputation as a leading authority in secure critical communications.

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On 5/21/21, Paul Darlington said:
Excellent concise article. Well done


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