What is cellular IoT? The future of IoT connectivity
Smartphones are some of the earliest (and most obvious) examples of cellular IoT — devices that connect to the internet via cellular technology. Cellular signals reach many places where Wi-Fi is unavailable, meaning that you can look up a restaurant menu or get driving directions while you’re on the road or walking around a city. The widespread coverage of cellular service makes it a practical choice for many IoT use cases, particularly when devices are on the move or scattered across remote areas — for example, fleet trackers, smart utility meters, and smart farming sensors.
With the advent of 5G, the role of cellular IoT is set to grow exponentially over the next several years. Let’s consider this technology’s potential benefits for businesses large and small.
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What is Cellular IoT?
Cellular IoT simply means connecting IoT devices using a cellular network rather than Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or a wired internet connection. As the IoT landscape has developed, many designers defaulted to Wi-Fi or Bluetooth for device connectivity because they can handle higher bandwidths and are often less expensive than a cellular connection. But technology is changing, making cellular IoT a more practical option.
Proliferation of LPWAN
Low power wide area network (LPWAN) technologies such as Sigfox and LoRaWAN operate on unlicensed bands, creating some range difficulties and security vulnerabilities. Cellular IoT standards such as Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) and Cat-M-1 offer the same energy efficiency and performance with the added benefits of wider global coverage and availability. As standards continue to evolve to enable massive IoT, cellular will become an ever more popular choice for many businesses and applications.
Evolution of 5G
As 5G continues to roll out around the world, the new technology’s faster data throughput and ability to support connectivity for many devices at once will make it invaluable, enabling at last the vision of “massive IoT” — many connected devices across a wide area — to become reality. Massive IoT typically refers to battery-powered devices running on battery power and using a low level of energy. These kinds of devices don’t require 5G’s ultra-high throughput, but the new technology will benefit them indirectly. In the future (following Release 17 in the next year or two), the 5G standard will enable massive deployment of low latency narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) devices with a density of up to a million endpoints per square mile.
What are the Business Benefits of Cellular IoT?
Cellular IoT holds many benefits for businesses contemplating an IoT deployment, particularly if the devices will be mobile or positioned in remote areas where Wi-Fi coverage may not be dependable. Let’s drill down on a few of those benefits.
Cellular IoT streamlines the authentication process, allowing users to sign in one time for their network rather than for every new device. If the device contains an eUICC-enabled SIM card or eSIM, it can also be provisioned and authenticated remotely, allowing operators to swap out subscriber profiles over the air (OTA) using a method called Remote SIM Provisioning (RSP). There are several business benefits to building with eUICC — for example, it enables a single SKU to work for multiple deployments around the world and gives you the ability to update SIM profiles after devices are deployed.
Large Coverage Area
Because cellular IoT uses existing cell networks, devices are not tied to any particular location. Currently, many IoT devices are limited by the range of a Wi-Fi signal, but Cellular IoT would allow for use in even remote locations if there is cell coverage. Cellular LPWAN coverage is also available around the world, with NB-IoT currently available in 29 countries and LTE-M in 24 countries, as networks continue to expand.
Cellular IoT removes a business’s dependence on a stable internet connection at the location of the device as long as there is a cell signal. This reliability can mean the difference between the success or failure of an IoT deployment.
Data sent via cellular network is encrypted, offering a much higher level of security than Wi-Fi. (While secured Wi-Fi access points can use encryption, it’s not as reliable, so there’s a higher chance data could be vulnerable to cyberattacks.) In cellular IoT networks, information is encrypted by default, meaning that business leaders don’t have to take extra steps to protect data.
With the reliable connectivity of cellular IoT, devices are better able to collect and transmit data in real time, allowing businesses to make best use of analytics. For example, a company can track how and when its health monitor is used, tailoring future product updates and features to suit the needs of end users. In a smart factory, the flow of real-time cellular data from machines on the floor can power AI, predictive maintenance, reporting, and other functions.
Industries Best Suited for Cellular IoT Applications
While Wi-Fi and other non-cellular connectivity will continue to be the best choice for some situations and applications, many industries can benefit from incorporating cellular connectivity in their IoT deployments. Let’s take a closer look at some examples from different sectors and what cellular technology brings to the table.
By allowing companies to keep a closer eye on their supply chains, inventories, sales, and customer reactions, IoT technology brings several important benefits to retail. Use of cellular connectivity in retail settings can bring added flexibility for some use cases. Here are a few examples.
Cellular IoT asset trackers attached to retail products could make shoplifting nearly impossible — unless the trackers are removed, the item can be traced after it is stolen. Some retail stores also use cellular IoT sensors to track in-store assets such as shopping carts with solutions like CartTrac from Bemis Retail Solutions. CartTrac allows stores to track down missing shopping carts both outdoors and indoors using GPS technology.
Cashless Payment Systems
Customers who agree to have their information cataloged could simply walk out of a store with their purchases. IoT tracking devices on the items, along with facial recognition software, keeps track of the items they pick up and charges them as they leave. Amazon is piloting this type of technology with their Amazon Go cashless convenience stores.
Kiosks and Remote Point of Sale
Vending machines, kiosks, and other remote point-of-sale (POS) systems can operate anywhere a stable cellular signal is present, even if the location lacks a wired internet connection. This allows for the deployment of many more stations in previously underserved locations.
Many older restaurants run transaction systems that were set up with low-speed dialup connections in mind, so high volume can bring down the system and cause major backups. Cellular IoT POS systems allow for far more simultaneous transactions to take place without the risk to network stability.
Connected sensors and wearable IoT devices are improving patient care and helping facilities improve operations. Cellular connectivity is ideal for wearable devices because it offers the broad coverage needed to ensure patients stay connected when they’re on the go. Let’s take a look at a few interesting applications of cellular IoT in healthcare.
To provide a flow of data in real-time, wristband devices that track health information need to stay connected to a network no matter where their wearers go. Elderly users who need continual monitoring of heart rate and vitals can move more freely without worrying about being out of range of their Wi-Fi and alerts can be relayed in real time if an emergency situation arises.
Small cellular IoT devices can deliver highly accurate data to physicians in patients who have chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes. Specific readings such as blood glucose and electrocardiogram data can be sent directly to physicians. Having a particular device tailored to monitoring these symptoms allows for a higher degree of accuracy in potentially dangerous medical situations — and using cellular technology to connect these devices means they can operate more consistently.
Tracking Devices for Dementia Patients
Tracking devices have been used for some time to help caregivers monitor dementia patients who may wander or become disoriented. Cellular technology allows for the integration of tiny tracking devices into other items that patients often use, such as clothes, shoes, and phones.
IoT plays a pivotal role in realizing Industry 4.0. Connected sensors are placed on factory floor machinery and the data they yield can be used to predict maintenance needs, monitor workflows, drive productivity, and feed into larger company databases to run analytics reports. Choosing cellular connectivity as a primary or backup link to the cloud helps to minimize downtime and ensure stable connection even in more remote locations. Here are a few applications for cellular IoT in this field.
Incorporating cellular IoT into manufacturing robots is useful on many levels. If the robot is a mobile unit, it maintains connectivity despite its location. And with manufacturing locations spread around the world, the likelihood of a strong cell signal is much higher than of a reliable on-ground high-speed internet connection.
Knowing ahead of time when a factory robot is on the verge of breakdown is a huge advantage for manufacturing companies. IoT devices can provide that advance notification, allowing operators to deal with emerging problems before they cause unexpected (and costly) downtimes. Such predictive maintenance requires stable connectivity, but some manufacturing operations take place in remote areas — especially those used for harvesting raw materials. For example, a remote stone quarry may not have high speed LAN connectivity, yet its machinery is still in need of careful maintenance. A cellular connection allows IoT devices to monitor those machines as closely as other machines in well-connected factories.
Smart Pumping in Remote Locations
IoT sensors are often used to monitor the amount of fluid pumped in water processing, chemical manufacturing, and power plants to maximize efficiency and prevent malfunctions. While chemical factories and power plants in urban settings can utilize existing high-speed internet infrastructure, many of these types of facilities — nuclear power plants, for example — are intentionally placed in remote locations due to environmental and safety concerns. Along with this comes a decreased availability of high-speed internet. Cellular technology allows this type of monitoring to take place in any setting.
IoT logistics applications can help companies connect global supply chains and keep track of the movement of goods and vehicles in real time. Cellular technology is a huge component in the success of IoT solutions in this space. Let’s take a look at some relevant applications.
Currently, most trucks and vehicles are tracked only when they check into or out of a delivery location. The recipient is alerted when the shipment reaches milestones along the way, but they cannot anticipate the exact time of delivery. This can be problematic when raw materials are needed to start manufacturing or other processes are waiting on the delivery of supplies. Cellular IoT allows for real-time tracking of delivery vehicles — from trains to trucks to airplanes — so that recipients can anticipate the delivery with greater accuracy.
Monitoring Goods in Transit
Many products, materials, and chemicals are sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity. Cellular IoT devices allow for these factors to be tracked in real-time to ensure the safe arrival of volatile materials — whether it’s a shipment of ice cream or medication.
Transportation Route Management
Advanced fleet management systems detect traffic and weather conditions along a vehicle’s route and recommend alternate routes as needed. Fleet-wide, this cuts down on fuel consumption and yields other benefits in saved time and increased safety. Cellular IoT makes these applications possible by providing stable connectivity and constant updates.
On Route Inventory Tracking
To date, IoT has greatly increased the efficiency of inventory tracking. Manufacturers are made aware immediately when materials are running low or any surpluses are present. Cellular connectivity for IoT devices can improve this process by sending real-time updates on the amount of inventory in any given vehicle. A cellular device installed inside a train’s freight car, for example, can monitor the amount of product remaining in the car during a series of deliveries, monitoring how much was unloaded at each stop, and when they will be in need of another shipment.
How Does Cellular IoT Actually Work?
When data is transmitted from a cellular device, it takes up a certain bandwidth of the electromagnetic spectrum — in much the same way as a radio station. And just like radio stations, when a cellular network shares the same frequency as another, the two can interfere with one another. This is why the FCC closely monitors cell networks and why they have developed a series of towers that all operate on slightly different frequencies but connect to the same network.
A cell includes a tower that uses a different frequency than surrounding cell towers. The size of each cell varies based on its number of users. Densely populated areas might have cells of a few blocks, while rural areas might have cells of up to several miles in radius. As users move from cell to cell, their calls and data are switched from tower to tower. This is commonly referred to as a “handoff.”
This system is the core of both cellular networks and cellular IoT. Let’s look at some of the components of cellular IoT.
Chipset, Module, and Modem
Every cellular IoT device contains a chipset — integrated circuits that manage tasks such as authentication and frequency control. Most IoT designers prefer to start with a module, which includes other features such as an antenna port, processor, and memory. A modem goes a step further, including both the module and chipset and also application software, a slot for a SIM card, end-device certification, and hardware interfaces.
IoT SIM Card
Traditional SIM cards connect the device to a network and securely authenticates the user. Cellular IoT SIM cards, on the other hand, have different functions since they were created for devices with different needs. Traditional SIMs are usually locked to one network, while some IoT SIMs (like Hologram’s) can hop to the best available network in a particular location. IoT SIMs are also designed to be managed remotely and in bulk, meaning that a business can interact with an entire fleet of devices at once.
An integral part of IoT architecture, the device gateway can be linked to Wi-Fi or a cellular network. A device gateway accepts input from an IoT device and allows it to interface with the internet. It also accepts input from other devices, allowing them to talk to one another and make adjustments as needed.
Extended Network Coverage
Cellular IoT uses existing commercial cellular networks, with a large coverage area already established. Depending on which provider a business chooses, their devices may be limited to using certain networks and cells — but carrier-agnostic platforms like Hologram’s allow devices to connect to the best available network no matter where they are in the world.
Lower Data Requirements
Because most IoT devices are focused on sending raw data (the internal temperature of an industrial machine, for example) rather than streaming Netflix, they often have very low data requirements. This makes them very cost and energy efficient.
Which Mobile Networks Does Cellular IoT Use?
Similar to consumer mobile devices, cellular IoT depends on 2G, 3G, 4G, 5G, and low power wide area networks (LPWAN) to operate. A cellular device may be designed to operate on different network technologies depending on its data bandwidth needs and other requirements. Let’s take a look at the distinctives of each cellular IoT network type.
Many businesses still rely on 2G — some due to lack of local coverage by faster networks, and others because their devices do not require more data throughput capabilities. Lingering use cases for 2G range from temperature sensors to asset trackers and other simple devices. Many areas of the world are phasing out 2G infrastructure, though, prompting businesses with 2G IoT deployments to shift toward newer technology.
These networks can support more data and sophisticated IoT device management processes with UMTS. 3G networks use 50 percent more power than 2G networks do, making this technology less efficient for battery-powered IoT devices deployed in remote areas. Like 2G, 3G is also set to sunset within the next few years, so it’s wise for businesses to create devices with alternative network connection capabilities.
4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) Networks
4G can support both simple and complex IoT devices, as well as those with more real-time demands, making it an excellent choice for use cases that involve video and audio transmission. Remote operation of complex systems can be carried out through a 4G network.
5G is at the cutting edge of cellular technology, allowing for real time interaction with extremely high data transfer speed and capacity. Augmented reality smart glasses, virtual reality applications, and real-time controlling of vehicles are some of the cellular IoT use cases 5G makes possible.
Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) and LTE machine type communication (LTE-M) are LPWAN technologies that have very wide coverage and low bandwidth. They work well with battery-powered IoT devices that only need to send and receive small amounts of data.
Another LPWAN technology, the Cat-M1 network is specifically designed for IoT applications. It vastly reduces the spectrum at which operations take place, moving it from 20MHz down to 1.4 MHz. This shift allows for an extension of battery life of up to a decade in some devices, given the low power requirements for operation.
Considerations When Choosing a Network
Choosing the right cellular network for your IoT device depends heavily on where and how it will be used. Here are a few considerations to keep in mind.
Because cellular IoT devices can operate on a wide range of bandwidths, it’s important to consider the specific needs of your application. For some use cases, such as temperature sensors for machines on the factory floor, NB-IoT or Cat-M1 might work well. However, if you want to incorporate augmented reality and AI, you will need a faster technology such as 4G or 5G.
Range of Coverage
Range of coverage is also an important consideration depending on the use case. If you are using IoT asset trackers to monitor a fleet of vehicles traveling across a rural area, wide ranging coverage is important. Higher bandwidth networks often do not reach remote areas, so for now, it may be best to choose a LPWAN option.
Although cellular networks are generally more secure than Wi-Fi networks, there are some variables from network to network. If you are dealing in highly sensitive proprietary information, it is important to be aware of the networks your IoT devices will connect with in each location.
Core Network Control
In certain situations, businesses may want to avoid or lean more heavily on certain networks on the needs of the device. Core network control gives the SIM card user the ability to choose which networks that card can connect to. By default, SIM cards route through the fastest network available, but given potential security concerns or other factors, the user might want to manually set a list of networks the SIM card is allowed to use.
Cellular IoT With Hologram
Whether they require high-speed 5G or a lower power standard, all cellular IoT devices need a dependable source of connectivity. Hologram’s IoT SIM card offers seamless, global coverage for IoT devices with access to LTE/4G/3G/2G technologies. With our Hyper eUICC-enabled SIMs, you’ll gain access to new connectivity partnerships without any additional carrier negotiations, integrations, or hardware swaps.