The emerging Internet of Things (IoT), specifically cellular IoT is one of the fastest-growing markets many of us will ever see. As in any new market there will be a steady supply of “game changers,” but one of the biggest will be the demand for low power cellular modems. The cellular network was created to support phones, first for voice and more recently as pocket-size data devices, requiring more and more bandwidth for both individual devices and the network itself. Power-hungry smartphones turned us all into outlet-seeking creatures, always on the lookout for a charge to keep our smartphones connected. The Internet of Things (IoT) is turning all of that on its head.
Cellular Service for IoT
While the super-reliable, omni-present cellular network remains an ideal medium for connecting IoT devices, the needs of those devices are completely different from those of smartphones. First, unlike phones, most IoT devices use relatively little bandwidth. Instead of hours of Facebook, music, or streaming video, most will send only short, periodic bursts of data. Some will simply stand watch, sending no data at all unless critical thresholds are reached. Second, they will function unattended, with no one to charge them. That won’t be a problem for devices that are stationary and have access to AC power, but many will be remotely located, mobile, or have to function when external current fails, relying for days, weeks, or years on battery power. And third, because they are expected to be deployed in huge numbers – billions by most estimates – cost will be a critical factor.
In the early days of IoT, devices relied on repurposed 2G, 3G, and 4G LTE modems originally designed for voice and the growing tide of streaming data. But as the IoT matures, cellular providers are introducing services specifically designed for IoT applications, and equipment manufacturers are introducing chips, modules and modems designed to take full advantage of the new services. These new components offer lower bandwidth capability that is more than adequate for IoT applications, cost less both to purchase and to operate, and draw a fraction of the power required for preexisting components.
IoT-Specific Cellular Services and Products
Cellular providers are already offering Cat 1 service, which utilizes the existing LTE network more efficiently and cost effectively. By early 2017, they will roll out even more power-efficient, cost-effective cellular IoT-specific Cat M1 service. Equipment providers are already offering Cat 1 modems and finalizing development of Cat M1 modems in anticipation of Cat M1 service. These new components and services won’t just lower the cost of existing IoT operations. They will enable new applications that wouldn’t have been economically or technologically feasible using 2G, 3G, or 4G services and will spur even more explosive cellular IoT growth. The challenge for developers will be to incorporate connectivity effectively and quickly into their products.
Staying on Top of Change
As with all new technologies, each new cellular service offering has the potential to reshuffle market leadership. Because connectivity is fundamental to IoT applications, developers are highly motivated to incorporate any new, more effective cellular technology into products and must consider a lot of factors in making product choices. For very large product volumes, companies with lots of engineering resources can incorporate cellular chipsets. Chips are relatively low in cost but require the most time, engineering, testing, and certification for product development. Modules cost more, but incorporate chips and additional components necessary for cellular access. They somewhat reduce engineering cost and speed up development, but they also require significant engineering and end-device testing and certification. The third option, end-device-certified cellular modems, incorporate modules and other necessary components, and while they are most costly of the three options to purchase, they require the least engineering and are, by far, the fastest way to incorporate cellular connectivity into IoT products. In addition to minimizing development costs they help get products quickly to market, with all the advantages of being “first mover.” They also allow products to be introduced at smaller volumes enabling cost-effective redesign based on market feedback. And they allow engineering resources to focus on the IoT’s unique capabilities.
Other IoT Options
Another cellular option being developed is NB-IoT. This technology is significantly farther off, and will be introduced in Europe well before being available in the US. Its relative merits remain to be seen, but it does offer smaller bandwidth, may cost somewhat less than Cat M1, and will not be suitable for mobile applications.
Over the next few years, billions of devices, ranging from small consumer items to components of vast industrial systems, will become autonomous nodes in wireless real-time networks. They will function in the home, in factories, in vehicles, and in remote locations. New applications will emerge, and competition will shake up existing markets. Clearly, functionality will be critical, but product developers will be equally interested in speed to market and the flexibility to redesign products as markets, competition, and applications change.
Cellular networks have the reliability and coverage needed to meet connectivity needs quickly and effectively. And while chips and modules are perfectly acceptable ways to incorporate connectivity into products, they require significant engineering, time, and money. For small to medium volumes, maximum flexibility, minimum engineering requirements, and speed to market, nothing beats end-device-certified cellular IoT modems.
NimbeLink CEO Scott Schwalbe has extensive experience in in product design and cellular connectivity. NimbeLink is a leading provider of embedded cellular modems and has introduced a steady stream of innovative products to meet the changing needs of IoT product developers.