The IoT needs a new network

While many analysts are debating the definitions of M2M (machine-to-machine) and the IoT (Internet of Things), no one is debating that wireless data network applications are growing rapidly. Both Cisco and Ericsson have predicted that there will be 50 billion devices connected by 2020, up from 14 billion today.

What are these new connected devices? Many of the predicted next wave of devices will be fixed-location, sensor-based devices sending less than 500 bytes of data a day. Strategy Analytics estimates that this will account for roughly 5 billion device connections by 2022. Even more interesting is their prediction that half of these new applications will come from start-up companies.

These sensor-based applications have some specific requirements, notably:  7-10 year battery life; modem costs under US$10; network fees of less than $1/month; and indoor and outdoor ranges measured in miles, not feet.

Bryan-Eagle
Bryan Eagle

Existing cellular networks, especially 4G-LTE networks today, cannot meet these requirements. Here’s why: today’s cellular networks are “always on” so batteries last days not years, power requirements are 10 times more for transmit and 100 times more for standby and cellular hardware and monthly service fees are too expensive.

So who and what are these new networks?

The term that is emerging to describe them is LPWA (Low Power Wide Area) networks. What they all have in common is that they are very low speed and inexpensive. Why so slow? The slower the data rate, the greater the link budget, or range. This is how they get two miles from deep inside buildings to 10+ miles for outside applications.

One of the major new players is Sigfox, which offers bi-directional ultra-narrow-band (UNB) communication.  Two-way communication ensures that the messages get through and are acknowledged, and that you can wake up a device to make sure it is still working properly. Two-way communications also ensure the ability to control the end device, and the ability to update or change firmware or application functionality remotely.

There are several other companies now in stealth mode with products that have long range, lower power radios with great battery life, and will also operate efficient, well-architected, two-way networks.

There are still some clouds on the horizon for these start-ups. Several of these companies, including Sigfox, operate in the unlicensed ISM (Industrial, Scientific, Medical) bands. Because they are unlicensed, these companies can put up their infrastructure wherever they want. This makes it easier and less costly for them to build out networks than licensed networks.

However, the ease of deployment of unlicensed ISM band applications will be their major hurdle. ISM band applications must accept interference from other transmitters which means the more applications or networks that operate in these bands, the more interference they must accept, which ultimately limits the number of devices that can be monitored by these new networks.

What technology will win?  Stay tuned.

The author is Bryan M. Eagle of Multi-Tech Systems. He has led successful companies in their marketing, strategic planning, and business development efforts for over 25 years. Eagle was previously president of Memphis Ventures, a firm he founded to provide strategic planning and consultancy services to high growth companies and their investors. His telecom consulting clients have included Sierra Wireless, Digi International, and Thuraya among others. Eagle has also held pivotal roles at Media4, Skywire Corp., Cylix, the Discovery Channel, and Ally & Gargano in New York.

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