Connecting the Internet of Things

By: Brian Lavallee, Ciena Senior Director of Portfolio Marketing

IoT is coming, how will “things” connect to the network?

Who’d have thought a few decades ago that thermostats, refrigerators, front door locks, garage openers, lights, and even pets would be connected to the Internet, and easily accessible from anywhere at anytime all from the comfort of your smartphone? Anything that’s electrically powered and is given a network connection, can easily join the growing and expanding IoT.

Wirelessly Connecting the Machines

Most fanfare within the telecom industry related to wirelessly connecting the IoT involves discussions around cellular-centric acronyms such as 5GLTE-MEC-GSM-IoT, and NB-IoT, but it should be highlighted that there are other ways to wirelessly access machines, such as WiFiBluetoothZigBee, Near Field Communications (NFC), Z-Wave, and others. The chosen wireless technology ultimately depends on addressing application requirements at the lowest cost, especially when the sheer number of things to be connected (to the Internet) and interconnected (among themselves) is taken into account. For example, connecting 100 million things via a technology costing $1 more annually than a lower cost alternative needlessly wastes $100M each year. This is why there will be multiple networking technologies used going forward, and will be use-case dependent.

From an application perspective, things like geographic coverage, data rates, end-to-end latency, security, battery life, and other metrics, will dictate whether WiFi makes more sense than Bluetooth, for example. The path from a sensor to the data center, where gathered sensor data is processed, will likely cross multiple different protocols. For example, the fitness monitor on your wrist gathers data (heartbeat, steps), sends it to your smartphone via Bluetooth, and onwards to a data center for processing via WiFi, then wireline. In this particular application, the cellular network can be used instead of WiFi but is often not, due to higher costs.

For IoT to be successful, a cost-effective way to interconnect machines that require small amounts of data transmitted over great distances for long periods of time, at long intervals, and often from hard to reach places, is needed. Cellular networks, are not designed or optimized for use-cases transmitting very small amounts of infrequent data.

The Future is Now, with Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) Networks

Although 5G is touted as the panacea to interconnecting things and enabling new and smarter use-cases, there are already viable ways to enable IoT over cellular Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) networks specifically designed for unique IoT network performance requirements. LPWA protocols offer low power, low cost, wide area coverage, and sufficient data rates to connect various types of sensors gathering data at regular, albeit long, intervals and send it to a storage and compute location, such as a MEC node, regional data center, or centralized data central office situated very far away.

3GPP offers three IoT-centric network standards, each of which uses licensed bands making them more secure and reliable than unlicensed networks, such as WiFi. The three technology standards, collectively called LPWA, are eMTC (also known as LTE-M, Category M1), NB-IoT, and EC-GSM-IOT, as summarized in Table 1.

According to the GSMA, the standardized LPWA technologies possess several characteristics making them particularly attractive to cellular IoT use-cases.

  • Low power consumption
  • Low device unit cost
  • Improved indoor/outdoor penetration
  • Secure connectivity and strong authentication
  • Optimized data transfer supporting small and intermittent blocks of machine data
  • Simplified network topology and deployment
  • Integrated into a unified/horizontal IoT/M2M platform
  • Network scalability for capacity upgrade

These characteristics fit a many low power applications, such as: livestock tracking, appliance monitoring and control, vending machine monitoring, vehicle asset tracking, smoke detectors, alarm systems, parking sensors, smart lighting, and energy monitoring.

5G on the Near Horizon

NB-IoT and LTE-M networks are, and will continue to be, deployed for IoT use-cases where the supported mobility, speeds, and latency yields a viable business case. EC-GSM-IoT, which uses 2G networks most regions around the world are starting to sunset or even skip, will likely yield far more limited commercial success.

For new and emerging IoT use-cases requiring full mobility, extreme data rates into the gigabits per second, and/or an ultra-low latency of just a handful of milliseconds, 5G becomes the obvious choice. When compared to 4G/LTE, 5G promises 100x higher data rates, 100x more connected things, and 10x lower latency that ingenious IoT developers will undoubtedly find new and innovative ways to use.

Rise of the Connected Machines

There are multiple different ways available today to wirelessly connect machines from extending the life of 2G with EC-GSM-IoT, to enhancing 4G with LTE-M, to leveraging shiny new 5G networks. These options allow MNOs to best serve target markets at the right price point to ensure commercial success. The ultimate end goal is to connect tens of billions of machines and create the massive Internet of Things.

Read about 5 Key Wireline Network Improvements Needed for 5G.

Ciena is a network strategy and technology company known for its commitment to customer success. With 25 years of industry leadership, we support more than 1,300 of the world’s largest, most reliable networks. Our technology is complemented with a high-touch consultative business model. We’re committed to developing and applying technologies that facilitate openness, virtualization, automation, collaboration, and a common experience. Technologies that offer the greatest degree of choice deliver the most rewarding customer experiences and business outcomes.

This article was created in collaboration with the sponsoring company and our sales and marketing team. The editorial team does not contribute.