Is the Internet of Things (IoT) speaking your language? As connectivity options, platforms and devices proliferate, there’s a real concern that the development of the IoT could slow, or even stall. 

From smart meters, street lighting and parking to tracking industrial equipment, packages, airport baggage, shipping containers and livestock, IoT developers have a host of options to work through.

Format war?

“To a degree there is a format war regarding IoT,” says Simon Bryant, Associate Director at Futuresource Consulting. “There are a lot of different solutions employing proprietary and standardised specifications and/or communication protocols, and the result is a rather fragmented marketplace.” However, this isn't any format war – this is one being fought on many different fronts between myriad protocols. The result is that the IoT is a very confusing place to experiment in.

NB-IoT is the new connectivity kid on the block

Device interoperability

Sure, the IoT is about increasing the connectivity of devices, but it also comes down to hardware. “The real value of the IoT is in interoperability,” said Tobin Richardson, President and CEO of the Zigbee Alliance, talking to TechRadar Pro at February's Mobile World Congress (MWC). “It’s like us both having a walkie-talkie, but unless we both speak the same language we can’t have a very useful conversation.”

His organisation has just announced Dot Dot, a technology-neutral, IP-based language designed to popularise common interoperable standards among IoT device developers, regardless of what connectivity option is chosen.

Massive scope and choice

The scope of the IoT is massive. “It ranges from individual sensors to networks of sensors, or end nodes and devices at the edge of the network, through to machines and larger, more complex device structures and networks,” says Bryant. “This could be a standalone device or it could be a factory, so communication requirements vary from short-range to long-range, and from low data bandwidth to high.

“Solutions, technologies and platforms have been developed to address all of these, but interoperability is critical for the IoT; having 10 different light bulbs that don’t talk to each other is not in the interests of anyone.”

NB-IoT offers low-bandwidth cellular connectivity

IoT connectivity: the options

While connectivity options can get confusing, for some it's the simplest part of the IoT jigsaw. “It's really all about the pipe – its size, power requirements, range, and speed,” said Richardson, who adds that physical environments will usually dictate what the best connectivity option is – cellular, Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWAN), or satellite.

That last one is easy to deal with. Inmarsat’s geosynchronous satellites can backhaul IoT data from remote rural, mountainous and desert zones using the L-band to enable IoT projects including agriculture, shipping, and even wildlife tracking. Separating cellular and LPWAN use cases is more difficult.

IoT connectivity: LPWAN

This is a fast growing sector, with the likes of Ingenu, the LoRa Alliance, Sigfox, Sensus, and Telensa all predicted by ABI Research to scoop up the majority of IoT projects. It’s a confusing mix of technologies, services providers and ‘walled garden’ ecosystems.

However, the aim is clear – IoT projects spread over large geographical areas that use low power devices and require low bandwidth. Because they use unlicensed spectrum, they’re quick to implement. 

Growth of Sigfox

Perhaps the most high-profile LPWAN service provider is SigFox, which is now in 32 countries. “It’s a consortium of players providing an agreed specification for citywide or national IoT networks, ideally in partnership with governments, national bodies and mobile operators and offering an open/public solution for third-parties to connect to,” explains Bryant.

Sigfox is all about guaranteeing a service

Sigfox is the only company deploying a single, global IoT network, working with just one operator in each country (including Arqiva in the UK, Cellnex in Spain, and Thinxtra in Australia and Hong Kong).

“But we're not a separate network in each country, we're closely aligned internationally so a customer can establish a single contract with a local operator for global connectivity of their IoT devices,” said Roswell Wolff, President for Asia-Pacific at Sigfox, talking to TechRadar Pro at MWC. “It's a common framework, with a common pricing structure based on the number of messages per day, and the number of connected devices,” he added.

There are also a number of Sigfox-only IoT devices, the development costs of which have been underwritten by Sigfox.

Water meters can increasingly choose between connectivity options

IoT connectivity: NB-IoT

There’s also a new cellular-based LPWAN technology that uses existing cellular networks: narrowband IoT (NB-IoT). “NB-IoT is the LPWAN version of LTE, which does involve a renewal of the core network as well as changes at the module level,” said Dickel Sooriah, Marketing Director at Actility, speaking at the MWC.

NB-IoT is offered by increasing numbers of mobile network operators, all using regulated spectrum. While LPWAN will likely take the low cost, low power end of the market, NB-IoT will take the high-end – those that are not as sensitive to cost – and IoT projects that absolutely require licensed spectrum, such as regulated utility companies.

Growth of NB-IoT and LTE-M

Many companies and service providers are embracing NB-IoT in the name of ‘future-proofing’ LPWAN networks, largely to ensure they have interests in more than one connectivity technology. At MWC, Actility announced that its ThingPark IoT platform will integrate with NB-IoT and LTE-M (more on the latter in a moment). “Actility is not a LPWAN company, it's a founder of the LoRa Alliance, but in five years’ time if something else works, we will do that,” said Sooriah.

So NB-IoT is now being widely integrated by IoT service providers, which will probably mean ending the ‘war’ between LPWAN and cellular in the IoT sphere. “It’s partly to ensure that they do not back the wrong horse,” says Bryant about NB-IoT’s spreading popularity among IoT service providers. “But it’s also to maximise their addressable markets – the end result is that this is helping to reduce some of the conflict of previous standards and format wars.”

ABI Research predicts that NB-IoT and another cellular option called LTE-M (more a global service for trackers and wearables) will witness exponential connection growth from 2018 onwards, as large telecoms companies upgrade their networks over the course of this year.

Will the smart city turn to 5G?

The 5G future

The ‘format war’ in IoT is actually just a hyper-competitive space that includes myriad options for every possible loT project – and now there's one more connectivity option to consider: 5G.

But why would any IoT device need the 10Gbps bandwidth that 5G networks could offer? They won’t – this is purely about the IoT’s massive predicted growth (46 billion devices, sensors and actuators in 2021 according to Juniper).

“While 5G will be a versatile technology for enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB), massive IoT and ultra-reliable and low-latency communication (uRLLC), even after 2020, ZTE believes that 5G and the existing Sigfox, LoRA, and NB-IoT technologies will coexist for a long time,” said Dr Xiang Jiying, Chief Scientist of ZTE Corporation, to TechRadar Pro. ZTE develops radio communications including 5G.

Jiying further commented: “Sigfox, LoRa and NB-IoT will continue to serve LPWAN IoT devices and the existing vertical industries, while 5G IoT will deliver new possibilities for uRLLC applications.” 

Such uRLLC projects could involve cloud robotics, autonomous vehicles and smart city infrastructure, along with remote surgery. If projects like that come to fruition, Industry 4.0 will be with us. No-one will then be able to say that a format war held back the IoT. 

Image Credits: Jamie Carter

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