Cracking the carrier conundrum: making the case for cellular connectivity in IoT use cases

by Keith O'Byrne for blog, IOT

In our most recent IoT-related blog post, we looked at a world where connectivity between the sensors and servers is essentially compromised. Makers and DevOps guys have had two choices: either plough ahead using whatever connectivity’s available, rather than what’s best suited to the project, or else do without cellular connectivity and miss out on the cost savings or customer insight.

The problem with the former scenario is that you risk sacrificing your gains at the altar of patchy or unreliable connectivity that isn’t fit for purpose – but more of that later.

Last year, McKinsey published a really good scene-setting post showing where IoT has strong commercial potential. In all, McKinsey described nine different ‘settings’ including: factories (operations management, predictive equipment maintenance); cities (public safety and health, transportation management); retail (automated checkout, smart CRM); outside (logistics and navigation); work sites (operations and optimisation, equipment maintenance, health & safety); vehicles (condition-based maintenance, reduced insurance); and offices (organisational redesign, worker monitoring, augmented reality-based training).

connected(A brief aside: for the purposes of this and future blog IoT posts, we’re going to exclude domestic use cases. Apart from wanting to scream every time someone mentions putting their fridge on the internet, our view on IoT in the home is that it’s a one-to-one network; your broadband provider or application provider will take care of the connectivity.)

When we start to look at the world of industrial IoT settings, things start to get pretty complicated when it comes to managing connectivity. As Alan Woolhouse describes in his recent post about the great connectivity race, there are a myriad of standards relating to low power, short range technologies and long range, cellular technologies. Let’s look closer at the different use cases emerging for the IoT and the different connectivity options. One possible use case would be monitoring. It’s important, but probably not a mission-critical job, and it applies to several of the possible scenarios outlined above. You have a low-power sensor/device/thing/end point making regularly timed, low-volume updates or transactions. As a result, a low-bandwidth connection is probably sufficient in this environment, but it has to allow bi-directional flow of data because you’re probably going to want – or need – some degree of remote management and configuration of your endpoint device.

Next, let’s consider payments transactions like you find in retail. The business model means the transaction volume will spike and dip in any given day, so you’ve got to allow for varying usage patterns, and much greater frequency. What’s more, each transaction involves larger volumes of information passing from the devices than in our earlier example. That means you’re going to need higher bandwidth, and, as before, a bi-directional flow for remote management. In retail, sales are the lifeblood of the business, so a crucial difference between this and our earlier use case is that a connectivity failure is mission-critical.

Our third use case adds a further layer of complexity. If we think about media or content passing across a network, it needs even higher bandwidth than in the other examples we’ve given. There could well be digital signatures involved and chances are there will be some element of payment transaction. As before, the frequency of transactions will vary and reliable connectivity is a must.

So which connectivity option do you choose? On the face of it, you’ve got lots of choice, from NFC, and cellular to Bluetooth, LoRA or Wi-Fi. [12 bytes a week but the battery lasts for 12 years. v little transport to the devices] or Wi-FI. Getting on to Wi-Fi is challenging: can you get a device to reliably sign on to a hotspot for the next 15 years? LoRA ticks the ‘low power’ box but it’s also extremely low volume and there’s very little transportation to devices.

But we believe cellular connectivity can address a lot of the issues that are starting to emerge in some of the use cases like the ones we’ve described here. There’s a lot of life left in earlier networks like GSM, 3G and 4G, and that’s an important consideration.

What has maybe put off some of the maker community from factoring cellular connections into their thinking has been difficulty of accessing the network. Unless you’re a big corporate with budgets to match, it’s been hard to get an audience with large mobile carriers make the case for special dispensation to test new projects. So if you’re an interested hobbyist, it soon becomes prohibitively expensive to do things like pushing software patches out to endpoint devices over the cellular network. Depending on the type of devices you’re using – and it’s often multiple types – then you might also find you’re not just dealing with a single network.

However, with the recent Eir announcement of its IoT connect, carriers are now able to simplify the connectivity challenge by making private APN available for all. Using Asavie PassBridge® our core competence is aggregating networks and we try to distil these challenges into ‘as a service’. Our PassBridge platform combines SaaS, SDN and ISP, sitting between the carrier and the internet – effectively like a giant router, pulling everything into one network so that it’s easier to manage, configure and control.

In the ‘traditional’ IT world, the past 10 years witnessed virtualization massively speed up the time it takes to spin up a server and get developing. Now, you just go on VMWare or Hyper-V and make it happen. That same speed hasn’t happened yet to the technologies that you need to make IoT projects fly, but we believe it can. In our next blog, we’ll lift the lid on some use cases we’ve worked directly on, and we’ll talk about how we addressed the connectivity challenge.

If you would like to hear more from Keith, you can hear him speak at the IoT World event this summer. We have an exclusive offer for our friends and partners of 30% off all tickets. Click here to request your discount.

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