The IoT Showdown and the Opportunity for 4G LTE

Before billions of connections can be realized, there is the question of how the devices will connect

Andrew Lund, Digi International

It has been estimated that there will be no less than 50 billion connected devices online by 2020. Before the promise of billions of connected devices sharing information can be realized, there is the question of how, exactly, most of these devices will be connected. Internet of Things (IoT) solution providers and those supplying them are keenly interested in the answer since it will help determine how those solutions and their components are architected. Will specialized networks be built, or will an existing technology, such as Wi-Fi, LAN, satellite or cellular, fill the void?

Mobile operators are placing their bets on 4G LTE to meet the growing requirements of IoT applications. They have good reason for doing so: the increased traffic-carrying capacity, network efficiency, scalability, low latency and improved building penetration offered by 4G networks means that they are well suited for many types of IoT applications requiring speed and responsiveness. Many organizations have also moved in the direction of 4G for IoT: According to a 2014 Vodafone study, the percentage of companies relying on fixed-lines for their machine-to-machine (M2M) connections will decrease as mobile broadband and 4G make it more practical and cost-effective to enable a greater variety of M2M applications. The growth of wireless M2M communications to provide connectivity of remote devices has become a key enabler of IoT.

Essentially, we are witnessing a race to determine which technologies – and, therefore, providers – are going to carry the data load for IoT. Special IoT transport networks are being planned and implemented, but they seem to be focused primarily on carrying M2M applications that don’t currently demand high speed or optimal performance. Others argue for the use of satellite communications for their advantage in connecting remote devices across vast distances to the network edge, while others prefer wireline connections that still boast the fastest speeds. But given the advantages of 4G LTE, these networks are uniquely positioned to address the IoT market opportunity, especially as the benefits of newer Category-1 (CAT-1) and Category-0 (CAT-0) technologies are realized. Now incorporated into the LTE standard, Cat-1 and Cat-0 offer low speed, low power and cost-efficient capabilities that will greatly optimize LTE networks for a broader range of IoT applications.

This fact is not lost on mobile operators – many of whom are well underway in sun-setting their 2G and 3G networks in favor of more robust 4G LTE that can easily connect and monitor all types of connected devices. For carriers leading the charge, it’s clear that 4G is not only about serving the billions of mobile subscribers using LTE-enabled smartphones and tablets, but perhaps even more critically, creating new business-to-business (B2B) market opportunities (most consumer IoT applications currently rely on short-range wireless connectivity, such as WiFi and Bluetooth, not LTE).

Mobile operators are quickly taking advantage of the opportunity to build out their B2B IoT solutions. AT&T has struck IoT agreements with more than 130 organizations spanning numerous industries, including agriculture, automotive, aviation, energy, healthcare, transportation, security and supply chain logistics. According to recent research from Verizon, there will be an estimated 5.4 billion B2B IoT connections globally, and it appears as though IoT demand is already impacting Verizon’s network: its 4G LTE activations grew by 135 percent in 2014.

The key benefits of 4G LTE that put mobile operators at a distinct advantage in the IoT showdown include:

  1. Ubiquitous coverage – Cellular coverage is now widely available and can be deployed anywhere there is in-network coverage. It has already been deployed in mobile applications where devices need to stay connected across wide geographical areas. Additionally, there is a growing population of small cell deployments that are enabling improved in-building coverage for shopping centers, large corporate buildings, subway stations, etc.
  2. Faster, more efficient networks – As wireless sensors and M2M communications proliferate, organizations are investing significant resources in solutions that derive value from the analysis of IoT data. 4G LTE offers the most practical way to reliably transmit that data over large, highly distributed networks with faster speeds and lower latency. It also offers performance improvements, including nearly twice the spectral efficiency of HSPA+ (an enhanced version of 3G cellular network protocols), according to mobile industry consultancy Unwired Insight. In short, 4G LTE is able to deliver more data, at faster rates, with existing bandwidth.
  3. Better service – Since 4G LTE is IP-based, there are an increasing number of monitoring solutions that can be implemented to identify areas of the network that may be suffering from performance degradation. 4G enables carriers to better understand signal quality and strength, which will help them to identify potential loss of data in route from M2M sensors and devices. Additionally, because 4G transmits over a lower frequency, it maintains better signal strength in dense urban environments that previously suffered with 3G connections.
  4. Reliability – Reliability is critical for many M2M applications, especially those involving security and real-time monitoring and alerts. 4G is a robust wireless network used by nearly one third of the world’s population every day – network outages are rare and, if they do occur, they are immediately identified and acted upon.

The IoT security challenge

However, deploying and managing IoT solutions has its challenges – not the least of which is security. In a more connected environment where mobile operators are looking to move beyond connectivity to offer complete business solutions for IoT, from fleet management to energy to connected cars – securing devices, the data they carry, and the corporate networks they access will be paramount.

This is already top of mind for key industry players. The GSMA, an association that represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide, for instance, has established the Device Connection Efficiency Guidelines that outline how machines should communicate via mobile networks in the most intelligent and efficient way – of which the implementation of appropriate security measures is a key component. In 2012, the CTIA, an international organization representing the wireless communications industry, created its Cybersecurity Working Group (CWG) to help identify issues and address the impact of cyber threats, which are expected to pose new challenges with the growth of IoT and M2M connections.

The Federal Trade Commission recently provided guidelines on steps organizations should take to enhance and protect privacy and security as IoT grows.  While this report focuses on consumer risks, the recommendations are likewise applicable to the industrial side of IoT and companies developing IoT networks. Key recommendations include:

  • Building security into devices at the outset, rather than as an afterthought in the design process
  • The development of measures that keep unauthorized users from accessing a consumer’s device, data or personal information stored on the network
  • Monitor connected devices throughout their expected life cycle and, where feasible, provide security patches to cover known risks
  • When a security risk is identified, consider a “defense-in-depth” strategy whereby multiple layers of security may be used to defend against a particular risk

For mobile operators, this means partnering with suppliers that work hard to ensure their devices don’t become the entry point for attacks that could have a massive impact across IoT systems. The embedded SIM Specification outlined by GSMA is a great example of efforts being made in this area, which will provide built-in security for M2M devices at the hardware level.

The bottom line is that for companies looking to rollout IoT solutions – from businesses to solutions providers to the mobile operators themselves – 4G LTE offers enormous advantages as the transport network of choice – providing robust, high speed, reliable and readily available connectivity. However, they must select solution components, including IoT-enabled devices that perform well on 4G networks and are hardened against cyber-attacks. They also need to consider the most efficient way of managing all those devices across 4G networks. With millions and, eventually, billions of devices sharing connections, transmitting data and connecting back to core networks, the next few years will be interesting to watch as the showdown heats up and incumbent mobile operators standardize on 4G LTE as the default network for IoT.

About the Author: Andrew Lund is a product marketing manager at Digi international, a provider of M2M solutions. Lund has worked in the wireless industry for the last decade and specializes in addressing the product requirements of customers within the telecommunications, retail, energy and transportation markets.