On the role of 4G in building the IoT

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Internet of Things (IoT) and 4G radio mobile technology are recently among the hottest words in IT and telecom community in Vietnam. In a convergent world where IT and telecom are more-than-ever closely linked to each other, this article will discuss how cellular technologies will enable the deployment of IoT and how IoT will impact on the evolution of the radio mobile technology?

A brief history of cellular technology evolution – What is 2G/3G/4G?

Since appearance, radio mobile systems have been constantly evolving in order to satisfy the increasing demands of customers. This development has been contributed and realized by a number of different industrial and standardization organizations such as 3GPP, 3GPP2, WiMAX Forum, etc. Among them, the 3GPP (The 3rd Generation Partnership Project) has emerged as the major actor. Supported by a tremendous ecosystem of manufacturers and operators worldwide, 3GPP is responsible for the development of the most successful radio mobile technologies including GSM/GRPS/EDGE, UMTS/HSPA/HSPA+/LTE/LTE-Advanced.

If GSM/GRPS/EDGE and UMTS/HSPA/HSPA+ are commonly referred to the second (2G) and third generation (3G) of mobile technology respectively, the things become more complicated when defining the 4G. According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the highest international regulation organization in the telecommunication domain, the term “4G” remains undefined. However, ITU has specified that IMT-Advanced (International Mobile Telecommunications – Advanced) is the next step in mobile broadband wireless technology building on IMT-2000 (International Mobile Telecommunications – 2000), widely referred to as 3G. Therefore, it is widely accepted that all technologies meeting IMT-Advanced should be considered as 4G. Until now, only two systems, which are LTE-Advanced and WirelessMAN-Advanced (WiMax 2), have been accorded the official designation of IMT-Advanced i.e. 4G systems by ITU. However, many operators also use the term “4G” in an “undefined” fashion to represent forerunners to IMT-Advanced technologies such as LTE, HSPA+, WiMax and other evolved 3G technologies.

LTE-Advanced was first standardized by 3GPP in Release 10 and developed further in the Releases from 11 to 13. The 4G technology which has been being piloted in Vietnam by the local mobile operators is LTE-Advanced Release 11 and 12.

How do cellular technologies enable IoT?

Although IoT hasn’t officially defined yet, it is commonly accepted that Internet of Things is a concept of basically connecting any device to the Internet and/or to each other. The IoT is a giant network of connected “things” including everything from smart phones, smart electricity/water/gas meter, wearable, connected cars, home appliances, sensors, etc.  This also applies to components of machines, for example, a jet engine of an airplane or the drill of an oil rig.

Industry leaders such as Ericsson and Cisco predict that the connected device segment will reach 50 billion connections while Gartner analysts project 26 billion units connected to the IoT by 2020. Therefore, it is of great importance to define how these devices will be connected in order to make IoT perspectives become a reality. This connectivity foundation will also determine how IoT solutions and their components are architected. Currently, there are several selections for IoT connectivity including:

  • Cellular technologies such as 2G (GSM/GPRS/EDGE), 3G (UMTS, HSPA), 4G (LTE/LTE-Advanced)
  • Technologies working on spectra which are not required to be licensed such as Wifi, Bluetooth, Zipbee, etc.
  • Newly new proprietary radio technologies which are designed solely for machine-type communication (MTC) applications such as LoRA, SIGFOX, etc.

There will be a wide range of IoT applications in the future, each will have different requirements in term of device cost, battery life, coverage, data speed, mobility, latency, reliability, and QoS. However, cellular technologies in general and 4G in particular present clear benefits across a wide range of applications including:

  • Ubiquitous coverage– Cellular networks have been developed and deployed over three decades and now widely available around the world, covering 90 percent of the world’s population. Additionally, there is a growing number of small cell deployments that are enabling improved in-building coverage for shopping centers, large corporate buildings, subway stations, etc.
  • Scalability – cellular networks are built to handle massive volumes of mobile broadband traffic and therefore, can easily absorb the traffic from most IoT applications which will be relatively small. Also, cellular technologies can serve a wide range of applications with varying requirements within one network from low-end MTC (Machine-type communication) to high-throughput demanding application such as video streaming.
  • Faster, more efficient networks– the recent cellular technologies such as 4G LTE/LTE-Advanced offer the most practical way to reliably transmit data over large, highly distributed networks with faster speeds, lower latency, and higher spectral efficiency.
  • Reliability– Reliability is critical for many M2M applications, especially those involving security and real-time monitoring and alerts. 4G is a robust wireless network with mature QoS functionality allowing to reliably handle critical applications.

Evolving cellular technologies for better IoT connectivity

Although having a lot of distinct advantages, 4G networks also contain several drawbacks as a connectivity foundation for IoT. Designed primarily to optimize the customer experience for high bandwidth services, the 4G technology therefore essentially delivers maximum benefits for high-speed applications such as mobile video between users across various connected devices. However, this approach is not optimized in an IoT environment, where the anticipated transmissions in a lot of IoT applications are quite low but billions of devices are connected in the same way.

In this context, 3GPP has already taken revolutionary steps to meet the new connectivity requirements of IoT. Key improvement areas such as lower device cost, improved battery life, improved coverage, support for a massive number of IoT connections have been addressed in 3GPP up to Release 13 through new technologies including LTE-M (LTE for machine-type communication), NB-IoT (Narrowband IoT), Power Saving Mode and/or extended discontinuous reception (eDRX) functionality, etc.

Chu Quang Hien – FPT IS

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