Attaining Production Scale in IoT deployment with a Combined Network Approach

Image of IoT network connectivity

A heavily debated topic in the connectivity landscape is which network types and protocols are best suited for supporting mass IoT sensor deployments. IoT production deployments are supported by a meticulously engineered connectivity layer, but an early consideration is determining which network will give you the most effective solution and project outcomes.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ connectivity approach, which Nick Sacke, Head of IoT and Products at Comms365 outlines. Below, he outlines the key factors that businesses must consider and the crucial questions that must be asked ahead of an IoT production rollout, while emphasising the clear need to use a blended strategy for network connectivity.

Evolution of IoT networks and protocols

Over time, the potential scale of IoT sensor technology has grown and deployments have evolved in capability. This has led to an increased demand for new wireless network protocols and methods to support the new sensor types, many of which rely on infrequent messaging at long range, and over a wide area, as well as battery power. However, widespread uncertainty and fragmentation in the IoT market, combined with increasing sensor hardware and software innovation, have led to the creation of several network connectivity options, each with its own qualities.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen the growing development of Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN), which is a dominant IoT Network type. LoRaWAN and Sigfox are earlier entrants to this market, which use free-to-air radio spectrum, and have had time to establish themselves across the world.

Both are now regarded as global network and protocol standards for IoT through establishing trust with users who are confident in the usability, scale and reliability. One clear industry leader as an IoT Network connectivity option is LoRaWAN, which heavily influences the market with over 40% market share of new connections, which is expected to continue adding market share through 2025.

For new IoT network protocols, NB-IoT and LTE-M – on the cellular side, are still getting up to speed. The GSMA was late in confirming the standards for these IoT procedures, leading to their deployment by Tier 1 carriers sometime after the earlier rollouts of the first LPWAN network connectivity protocols. There has been a clear lack of certainty in UK rollout of the cellular IoT network programmes, despite previous forecasts claiming that the cellular IoT Network variants would dominate the IoT connectivity market, stretching LoRaWAN and Sigfox to their limits. The IoT cellular LPWAN work has been largely limited to testing in the UK, while production rollouts are dominated by Private Council LoRaWAN installations and innovation programmes on public network variants of both LoRaWAN and Sigfox.

Globally, experts predict that network deployments will be split 50:50 between the free-to-air (unlicensed spectrum) and cellular variants (licensed spectrum) – and the competition between these network standards will continue for some time to come. In particular, once 5G is fully rolled out and there are radio modules at a workable cost point for IoT, 5G protocols will also have an IoT element for the cellular side that will bring increased scale and efficiency in terms of its capability to connect millions of sensors per square kilometre.

Identifying Use Case Parameters

Cost of delivery for data is a primary concern for most projects and is a concern that must be addressed. LoRaWAN and Sigfox are now at a level of maturity where the devices are cost-effective. In the beginning, cellular was a much higher cost but is now starting to reduce in price. However, in terms of usage costs, for NB-IoT and LTE-M, users are still paying by the byte for data on the network, whereas LoRaWAN utilises the free-to-air spectrum facility, and instead, charges are based on device licensing, and in the case of Sigfox, per message.

The choice of network and protocol isn’t straightforward, even though there may be clear differences in terms of cost models. As IoT rollouts become more mainstream, there remain elements within a LoRaWAN environment that may create uneasiness, including the risk of potential collisions on the network and lost messages due to various devices sharing the LoRaWAN spectrum. In order to ensure each message arrives where it is supposed to, the LoRaWAN software in charge of the network has been developed to alleviate the risk of this happening by spreading messages across multiple channels, observing message counters, and other techniques.

The key importance is identifying the parameters of the use case and the nature of the deployment. If a message with telemetry information, such as bin fill levels, only needs to be shared when there is a change, this won’t necessarily create network congestion on a LoRaWAN Network, as the messages aren’t sent at the same time. Consistent monitoring of environmental conditions from multiple sensors in an area may, however, need additional gateway capacity to ensure spreading the sensor message load. But if your use case requires guaranteed delivery of traffic within a particular time period or a constant stream of messages cellular protocols such as NB-IoT and LTE-M may need to be used.

Industry Uptake

A number of sectors are already using certain protocols and gaining traction from this. In particular, there has been mass uptake and interest in LoRaWAN for local governments that see it as a way to scale numerous use cases at once.

Additionally, across the utility monitoring sector, the protocol gaining the advantage is NB-IoT. This is because no gateways are required as signal towers are the enablement point, and it has deep penetration with the great signal strength to reach their destination.

But when it comes to monitoring elements deep within buildings, LoRaWAN can be more effective. With the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, which must be stored at chilled and specific temperatures, this type of intensive monitoring and data collection is critical. For this example, LoRaWAN can provide an effective protocol and measure the temperature deep inside the building, all the way down to the probe.

When having to measure readings intermittently, on an alert basis, the battery needs to be conserved so the sensors last a long time and will likely be leading towards the unlicensed spectrum. Whereas within a healthcare monitoring scenario, such as in an ambulance or a patient’s home, readings will need to be sent through immediately, so will need to rely on the licensed spectrum, such as LTE-M.

Future-Proofing with Blended Connectivity

Currently, one protocol that is optimised for every use case or that can cover an entire estate doesn’t exist. Therefore, to overcome such hurdles, the solution is to deploy a hybrid model which blends different connectivity protocols together – from both the unlicensed and licenced spectrums, in order to achieve total estate and use case coverage. A blended approach is scalable, flexible and cost-effective – a perfect solution for those that are looking to reap the benefits of mass-scale IoT but are uncertain as to how and where to proceed.

No business wants to rip and replace the technology after ten years. Instead, the success of an IoT deployment depends on longevity. In particular, LoRaWAN is on a growth trajectory that will provide that longevity. And the soon maturity of 5G will also become another option for IoT projects, with much more efficiency in terms of capability to connect millions of sensors.

With a combined model of different protocols covering each estate, it’s important for a single platform to be used that can bring it all together and be received, read and analysed in one location. NB-IoT, LoRaWAN, LTE-M, and Sigfox are all becoming industry-standard protocols that are each received in a different format. But they can be streamlined into one central hub that intercepts the traffic and converts it into a protocol that the receiving application needs. By working with a partner offering all types of IoT connectivity in a blended solution, projects can be rolled out in the confidence that each protocol has been considered and is supported, to maximise the functionality and practicality of an entire IoT project.

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