Carriers Gear Up for IoT - Are You Ready?
While the UCC suppliers continue to hope that 2018 will be the year that users finally embrace their vision of collaboration and willingly adopt their preferred collaboration tools, the bigger IT market is gearing up for a real change. The change I’m referring to is the Internet of Things (IoT) that will have the potential to impact everyone’s daily lives in countless ways and not just accelerate daytime pursuits of knowledge workers.
Not that the IoT market is immune to the misguided ministrations of the vendors’ public relations machine. The most recent attempts at this have centered around finding stuff we have been doing for decades and identifying them as “IoT.” As part of another project I’m working on (where IoT is actually a serious undertaking), I’ve been reviewing a number of the IoT case studies vendors have been cranking out, and now find that applications like telemetry or remote system monitoring have now been rebranded as “IoT.”
Despite the PR frivolity, IoT applications are making inroads and I fully expect that the current tens of millions of IoT devices will soon become hundreds of millions or more. The real change will not only be in the number of devices, but in the sophistication and overall impact of the applications deployed. Today the market is dominated by vehicle systems like GM’s OnStar or fleet management for commercial vehicles. Tomorrow, the sky is the limit.
This uptake in IoT can also be a big boost to systems integrators and networking pros, at least those who can manage to capitalize on this trend. The first word in “IoT” is “Internet,” and many of the skills we honed working on network technologies like frame relay and MPLS will be desperately needed in the coming flood of IoT applications.
However, working with IoT will also involve learning the ins and outs of a whole new set of network technologies. I found my way into IoT early on. Part of that was IoT’s reliance on wireless technology for mobile or hard-to-access IoT endpoints. Also, a lot of the challenges we faced in mobile before like intermittent signal failure and battery life concerns fed right into IoT.
Even more than that were the applications being discussed. The term “IoT” covers a wide range of potential applications, but the ones that seem to have the clearest focus and the most obvious short-term payback (I love a project that pays for itself) are in the area of industrial IoT (IIoT) - the kind of stuff we do in factories and distribution centers. We’ve been installing handheld and vehicle-mounted mobile computers with various forms of wireless connectivity in industrial settings for decades, so IIoT is just the next iteration of that trend.
Networking pros will need to learn a new set of tools to qualify to work in the IoT space. There are two primary wireless technologies being considered as the foundation for mobile-enabled IoT applications: cellular and Wi-Fi. There can be a variety of other shorter range or specialized wireless technologies like Bluetooth that connect multiple IoT devices to a local controller, but the wide area wireless link from there will be cellular or Wi-Fi.
For wide area IoT applications today, cellular service is the readily available choice. However, mobile operators supported those IoT devices over the same 3G/4G cellular network services they use to support smartphones and cellular-equipped tablets or laptops.
The mobile operators clearly recognize the growth potential for IoT, and are now augmenting their product lines with new wireless services that are specifically tailored to the expected requirements of IoT devices, particularly low volume gadgets like sensors and actuators. With the smartphone market reaching the saturation point, the mobile operators need a new growth engine, and they feel IoT is going to be it.
Part of the 5G promise is geared toward IoT. The 5G protocols are designed to support far greater device density than current wireless networks (i.e. 1 million devices per Km2) and 5G can deliver very low latency services (e.g. 1 msec.) for applications like controlling autonomous vehicles.
However, the operator’s plans for IoT aren’t waiting on 5G. The carriers are now starting to roll out what are called Low-Power Wide Area Network (LP-WAN) technologies designed specifically for IoT applications. The main 3GPP-defined options are listed in Table 1.
LTE Cat 1
LTE Cat 0
LTE Cat M1 (eMTC)
LTE Cat NB1
Peak Downlink Rate
474 Kbps (EDGE)
2 Mbps (EGPRS2B)
Peak Uplink Rate
250 Kbit/s (multi-tone)
20 Kbps (single-tone)
474 Kbps (EDGE)
2 Mbps (EGPRS2B)
Full or Half Duplex
Full or Half Duplex
Device Receive Bandwidth
1.08 M - 18 MHz
1.08 M- 18 MHz
MIMO Receiver Chains
1 or 2
Table 1: Summary of 3GPP-defined LP-WAN Technologies
Based on my talks with the carriers, their first shot at LPWAN-based services will be a standard called LTE Cat M1 (or “eMTC”); Cat M1 supports data rates up to around 200 K to 350 Kbps. AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile have nationwide deployments already, and Sprint is starting trials early this year with plans for a mid-2018 deployment. Besides being economical to deploy, Cat M1 also supports relatively low latency along with long battery life, a key requirement in many IoT applications.
There is another IoT technology called NarrowBand IoT (NB-IoT) that is also in the running. NB-IoT uses a much narrower frequency band than Cat M1 (180 KHz versus 1.08 MHz) and will support data rates roughly half of what Cat M1 can provide. T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint are all planning NB-IoT trials in the 2018 timeframe, and T-Mobile is talking about a nationwide launch in mid-year.
There are other LP-WAN IoT transmission technologies that have been proposed by private companies rather than standards bodies, including technologies like SigFox, LoRa and Nwave. For now, the carriers seem to be sticking with 3GPP-defined options, but we’re still early in the game.
While cellular has the lead in terms of massive infrastructure for macro deployment, there is still a role for Wi-Fi. Virtually all residential IoT applications from smart thermostats to video doorbells and remote garage door openers operate over the customer’s home Wi-Fi and broadband Internet connection.
Cisco is trying to establish a place for Wi-Fi in the wide area through the use of metro-area Wi-Fi. Cisco's website has a whole collection of IoT application case studies, virtually all of which depend on Wi-Fi. The Smart Cities case studies from Kansas City and Copenhagen describe a metro-area Wi-Fi deployment that supports a range of IoT applications along with traditional public Wi-Fi access.
So it’s time for network pros to start getting their game in shape to deal with IoT. Network professionals need to be part of the design team, but they also need to become conversant in the growing set of network options for IoT. That type of expertise will be critical in specifying, evaluating and selecting the particular IoT transport to use for each application. However, IoT also represents a major challenge in terms of network management.
As we have already seen, hackable IoT devices currently represent a major security weakness. IoT endpoints must improve in terms of security, but also in their ability to be managed. We will need systems to monitor usage and performance, provide troubleshooting assistance, maintaining records of device types, software/firmware releases, locations, deliver software updates and support all of the other management functions needed to maintain and operate any large-scale network.
IoT represents a major opportunity to network professionals and systems integrators, though it seems that only the PR people have come to recognize it. While brochures and white papers are nice, I have found that customers are more impressed with competence and expertise.
To participate in what many of us expect to be the next major advance in networking, you first need to develop that expertise. From there, the challenge becomes selling the need for networking expertise to deliver an IoT solution that really works. Unfortunately, application developers always seem to have a blind spot when it comes to recognizing networking issues and challenges.
IoT is going to be the next great adventure in networking. I hope you get your ticket punched, because the train is pulling out of the station.