LTE in M2M? Why Single-Mode LTE Answers the Call

As M2M providers migrate away from 2G, they will have to decide to which technology and network they will migrate

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a growing and exciting ecosystem comprised of an array of different technologies.

Currently, IoT networks are heterogeneous, with short-range, mid-range, and long-range connections. These three levels of IoT connectivity options are determined based on how widespread the connections need to be –immediate, specified geography, or widespread. Although a mix of technologies will make up the ecosystem, standards for Long Term Evolution (LTE) will play an increasingly larger role in facilitating long-range connections.

PAN and LAN

Personal Area Networks (PAN) for short-range connections are primarily facilitated by proprietary technologies such as Bluetooth and Zigbee. These low-cost, low-power connections are often used in sensor network applications, remote monitoring and personal mobility.

Local Area Networks (LAN) are most often seen in limited geographical locations. Wi-Fi has become the gold-standard, connecting computer networks within schools, office buildings, parks, coffee shops, and other locations.

These two types of connections are both necessary within the IoT, and the technologies facilitating them have become accepted as the standard for connecting to PAN and LAN networks.

WAN

When it comes to long-range connections, over what is known as a (Wide Area Network) (WAN), there is no clear leader.

There are currently two primary groups for WAN technologies: proprietary technologies and wireless technologies.

Proprietary technologies, such as Weightless, Onramp and Sigfox, have three main drawbacks. First, these technologies require a dedicated infrastructure, one that still needs to be built, adding to the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). Second, proprietary technologies lack economies of scale and wide ecosystem support, increasing cost and compromising interoperability. Finally, these technologies operate over unlicensed spectrum and cannot guarantee Quality of Service (QoS) the way that cellular technologies like 2G, 3G and 4G LTE can.

While these proprietary technologies may have a role to play in the diverse IoT universe, it is unlikely that they will become mainstream and take a leadership position in WAN connectivity.

Wireless technologies such as 2G, 3G and 4G LTE operate on licensed spectrum, and as such, provide a more consistent Quality of Service to users. They also benefit simply by being standards based. Looking to the future, maintaining 2G, 3G, and 4G networks simultaneously would be costly, and would inefficiently utilize the available licensed spectrum.

Enter M2M

Specifically for Machine-to-Machine (M2M) connections, the trends are already moving toward the end of 2G’s lifespan. Currently, 2G technologies like GPRS/EDGE or CDMA facilitate a majority of M2M connections worldwide; however, maintaining aging 2G networks is costly and Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) have a clear interest in re-farming such spectrum for the usage of the much more spectrally-efficient 4G LTE.

Mobile carriers are already moving to shut down these networks. Most notably, AT&T announced its “2G Sunset” Last year. Its 10-14 million M2M devices will no longer be able to operate on its 2G network as of January 17, 2017. 

As M2M providers migrate away from 2G, they will have to decide to which technology and network they will migrate.

3G or 4G?

The question then becomes, 3G or 4G?

While 3G is now ubiquitous, 4G LTE is the new standard excellence.  If M2M customers are to make a decision on where to take their technology, those with long-term vision know that investing in 4G LTE has the most potential to facilitate their M2M connections for at least the next decade and beyond. This is what 4G LTE was designed (and named) for –the long term.

For long-range WAN connections, it is clear that cellular technologies are more reliable than proprietary technologies. Additionally, of the wireless technologies, 4G LTE makes a strong case for becoming the primary cellular technology for M2M.

Market Drivers

There are both market drivers and market enablers pushing forward the adoption of LTE in M2M.

The market drivers include: Decommissioning of 2G networks, a concrete need and a push from mobile network operators.

  • Decommissioning of 2G Networks
    2G networks are reaching the end of their lifespan. As carriers phase out 2G, that spectrum will be re-farmed for use in 3G and 4G networks. While some of this spectrum will certainly be allocated to 3G networks these networks, too, will age, becoming inefficient to meet the needs of customers.

    Further, it is extremely costly to invest simultaneously in building both 3G and 4G LTE networks. Re-farming spectrum for 4G LTE provides high spectral efficiency (i.e., cost/bit), enabling carriers to reduce their OPEX (Operational Expenses) for delivering data. Further, 4G LTE networks are able to support many more users - and "things" on a given spectrum resource.
     
  • The need
    As more uses arise, and more M2M connections are created, having a reliable connection is vital. The potential applications of M2M connections are virtually endless, ranging from use in the automotive industry (user-based insurance, security and tracking), to use in intelligent buildings (security systems), and utilities (smart metering), to name a few. LTE will prove indispensable, particularly when industries require remote access (e.g., eHealth applications and sensors in agricultural settings). And again, investing in 4G LTE means investing in a long-term solution.
     
  • Mobile Network Operators
    One of the most important of market drivers is the investment of MNOs. The explosion of IoT/M2M applications means huge opportunities for increased revenue. MNOs have every interest in facilitating and reaping the rewards of these connections. As carriers are reluctantly being transformed into little more than "dumb pipe" providers for data, they might as well provide as many “pipes” to connect more “things” to the Internet.

    Already, MNOs are pouring billions of dollars into launching and expanding LTE networks worldwide. This established and growing infrastructure means a robust ecosystem and a lower TCO, creating further incentives for 4G LTE adoption.

Market Enablers

There are also market enablers pushing this vision forward, including: abundant capacity, low cost/bit and low cost chipsets.

  • Capacity
    Simply put, LTE can deliver higher spectral efficiency due to its higher capacity. This is more important than ever, as connected endpoints increase exponentially. Since M2M connections are generally not spectrum intense, with a low bitrate, and low throughput, many more “things” can be served by the higher capacity offered by LTE spectrum. This means lower CAPEX, and higher revenues for operators.
     
  • Low cost/bit
    M2M devices usually have a low bitrate. 4G LTE specifically offers a lower cost per bit rate of data over an operator’s networks. So, LTE spectrum can offer a better quality of connection to a higher volume of “things,” yielding higher efficiency at lower cost.
     
  • Low Cost Chipsets
    There is currently a roadblock preventing the widespread adoption of 4G LTE for M2M applications. In order to 4G LTE to become the standard for Wireless Wide Area Network (WWAN) connections in M2M, there needs to be a low-power and low-cost chipset to meet the needs of M2M players.

    The answer to this problem is single-mode LTE.  Rather than investing in 3G/LTE combined chipsets, which require royalties paid on 3G technologies, LTE-only chipsets are less expensive, and take away unnecessary cost to 4G LTE connections.

    A low cost chipset, optimized for M2M use (i.e.,: lower power), can bring down the cost of LTE connections, making it a very attractive option for WWAN connections.

    Eventually 4G chipsets will reach 2G-chipset price points, leading to a proliferation of 4G M2M connections.

Conclusion

When it comes to M2M connections in the IoT, cellular connectivity, specifically LTE, makes the most sense. LTE provides more efficient connections over competing technologies, and those with long-term vision know that re-farming spectral resources for LTE-use is an investment in the future. Further, MNOs are making huge investments in building ecosystems and infrastructure for LTE networks, and with this investment, a very attractive business model is created both for MNOs and M2M players.

The last piece of the puzzle is the adoption of a low-cost, M2M-optimized LTE chip.  With this, LTE adoption in IoT applications and M2M connections can become truly widespread, providing for cost effective and efficient cellular connectivity. 

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Eran Eshed is co-founder and VP of Marketing and Business Development for Altair Semiconductor, a leading provider of single-mode LTE solutions.

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