3G has supported IoT applications for many years. As companies have prepared to migrate from the legacy network, their priority will have been to avoid a break in service. They will have made a range of decisions on alternative connectivity to maintain continuity. On the face of it, these were technology decisions, but there is more to implementing and managing IoT applications than that. As companies take learning from the 3G transition, operational and commercial factors must be front and centre when designing for, and deploying, IoT solutions, says Paul Bullock, chief product officer, Wireless Logic.
What the 3G sunset means for the IoT
The switch off of 3G is well underway; indeed it has happened already in many regions. Saying goodbye to this network has a significant impact on companies planning new, and managing existing, IoT deployments. Many IoT applications and devices are set up to exchange data over 3G; they have had to be adapted through migration plans to connect using an alternative technology.
Most impacted companies will already have migrated, or will be at an advanced stage in their plans. Those plans will have had to take account of switch off dates in the company’s ‘home’ country but those with international deployments, or roaming devices, will have needed to also factor in the 3G sunset timetable for the networks in other regions where they operate.
Low power wide area network (LPWAN) and LTE Cat-1
Product designers and IoT companies will have turned to a range of technologies to fill the 3G void. Many will have considered NB-IoT and LTE-M. These do fit the bill for some deployments , however both these technologies have coverage considerations to contend with. Some national markets have great support for one or the other, but only a few support both and there’s no single SIM for both technologies in multiple countries. No one can predict what coverage (or roaming agreements) for either will look like in a few years. Neither is available on 4G and NB-IoT is not currently compatible with eSIM.
Alternatively, companies may have looked at LTE Cat-1 (and Cat-1 BIS – the single antenna version). As Cat-1 is a 4G technology it has global support and can accommodate multi-region deployments through roaming agreements. It has slightly higher hardware costs and power consumption but is compatible with eSIM. Crucially, it works in every market.
This is a transitional period, when companies have had to reassess the technologies that underpin their IoT installations. It has been an ideal time to weigh up eSIM for the flexibility it offers. eSIM technology enables companies to use the same SIM in devices that are deployed internationally because connectivity can be provisioned later over the air (OTA) and at scale. This is a major boost for simplified manufacturing, and also in-life negotiations as companies can choose to switch network operator to take advantage of attractive deals.
Production lines can embed eSIM cards into devices at the point of manufacture. The cards can store more than one SIM profile profiles can be pre-loaded or downloaded in an OTA transaction whenever they are required later. The devices can then be shipped anywhere in the world where they may spend years in the field, without the need to change SIM cards in order to change network profile.
eSIM technology delivers connectivity cost savings, by virtue of local rates and fewer roaming charges, no new SIM card expenses and no need to fund maintenance visits to change cards. One SIM for global use offers significant logistical, operational and lifecycle benefits where the chosen network technology supports eSIM, future-proofing all deployments.
Managing the IoT attack surface
IoT deployments present an attack surface that can be large, given the number of endpoints involved. Recognising the growth in smart and connected devices, and the cybersecurity threat, the EU’s Cyber Resilience Act proposes measures to secure wired and wireless products and software.
Product designers and IoT companies must make the right choices to secure their deployments. Available solutions include fraud detection mechanisms, that can automatically identify and block unauthorised device usage, and best practice trusted device identity including secure integration with cloud service providers. Data must be transmitted securely and handled in accordance with all relevant global, regional and national regulations.
A checklist for flexible connectivity by design
Ultimately, the technology choices IoT companies make should fit the business need. Each application and device will come with its own set of requirements, whether these are around coverage or data demands. There are technical and commercial trade-offs to be made between connectivity options as companies strive to balance operational efficiency, cost of ownership and other factors.
When designing for cellular IoT connectivity, consider this checklist of features:
- Battery life: does the device need separate power, and at what cost? What is the lifetime of the battery and how does this impact how long the device can remain deployed?
- Coverage: as already outlined, this is a priority consideration to ensure continuity of service and to minimise complexity in multi-region installations
- Data over time: will the device exchange the same type and quantity of data over time, or is this likely to change as additional capabilities are incorporated? An application providing audio, for example, may be enhanced at a later date to also support video. That can be a value-add for the service, but it comes with latency and bandwidth requirements, which will impact decisions on connectivity
- Security: data must be secured from the device to the cloud to mitigate the risk of damaging data breaches. There are a range of security features that an IoT connectivity platform provider will be able to advise on
- Distribution logistics: these must be as simple as possible to contain costs including, where possible, by minimising stock keeping units (SKUs) especially as many IoT installations are international
- Future plans: is there flexibility in the design to expand to new markets, scale up deployments or change network operator or plan? Complete ‘future-proofing’ may be unattainable, but nevertheless it is important to have an idea of the roadmap because when change inevitably comes, it comes with a price tag.
Smart connectivity choices can create better all round IoT solutions provided device, application and technology demands are taken into account. When designing IoT solutions, cellular connectivity choices have to be made, something an IoT connectivity platform provider can advise on. Flexible connectivity by design is an end goal but operational, commercial and technical requirements will all influence final choices.
The author is Paul Bullock, chief product officer, Wireless Logic.