We are witnessing unprecedented boom of connectivity technologies that in turn powers the remarkable growth of Internet of Things (IoT) connections for both business and household use. Engineers have a plethora of ‘traditional’ connectivity options they can use for connecting IoT devices, including established technologies such as WiFi, Bluetooth, ZigBee and cellular 2G, 3G and 4G technologies.
These technologies gave birth to rapidly expanding networks of connected devices while lab researchers and a number of innovative companies are proposing alternative connectivity solutions that involve both terrestrial and satellite connectivity as well as mixed solutions that combine both. Examples of such alternatives include emerging terrestrial connectivity options like 5G, Sigfox, LoraWan, Neul and their satellite counterparts such as Hiber, Kineis or Myriota.
In the next paragraphs, we will take a deep look at the most viable alternatives to ‘traditional’ IoT connectivity options and actors involved in the development of cutting-edge technologies for connecting a next generation of IoT devices.
Terrestrial IoT Connectivity Alternatives
IoT connections and networks owe their expansion to technologies such as WiFi, Bluetooth, ZigBee and 2G/3G/4G cellular standards, which are broadly used to connect both consumer and corporate devices.
Choosing a cellular alternative for IoT and Machine-to-Machine (M2M) connectivity largely depends on the number of consumer devices a technology is able to support. Thus, the first choice that comes to mind are 4G and 5G cellular technologies in large and the current 4G/LTE (Long Term Evolution) technology that are gradually replacing ageing 2G and 3G technologies we use to enable devices to communicate.
While 2G and 3G still dominate M2M communications (which represent actually IoT communication networks) through GSM/GPRS/EDGE communication standards, most cellular carriers are already shifting toward low-power wide-area-network (LPWAN) technologies, which in turn are alternative to 4G/LTE cellular connectivity. Actually, there are two alternatives for IoT connectivity when cellular networks are concerned: LTE CAT M1 and NB-IOT.
- What Is LTE CAT M1?
LTE CAT M1 builds upon existing LTE advantages and carriers can deploy it in-band within the existing LTE spectrum which is a huge advantage, especially bearing in mind that you get also cell tower handover you can take advantage of in both mobile and stationary use cases.
The limitations of this connectivity option pertain to data throughput that is 1Mbps (for both uplink and downlink), 10~15 millisecond latency, which prevents its use in a number of high-bandwidth IoT use cases. Then, you can explore the second cellular alternative, NB-IoT.
- What Is NB-IoT?
NB-IoT, or NarrowBand IoT, is an emerging technology for IoT connectivity that also gives you huge power savings and markedly extends IoT devices’ battery life through PSM (Power Saving Mode) and eDRX (extended Discontinuous Reception) technologies.
You can implement NB-IoT in any LTE network as a software overlay while in-band, guard-band or stand-alone implementations are possible.
The downsides of NB-IoT include a low data throughput of up to 26Kbps (uplink) and 21Kbps (downlink) with 1.4 – 10 second latency and lack of support for cell tower handover. This connectivity option comes handy when you have in-door IoT implementations in which walls obstruct cellular connections.
With all their limitations, both LTE CAT M1 and NB-IoT modules are much cheaper as compared to 4G/LTE modules. The use of these two technologies is gaining pace, especially in the United States but other alternatives by independent researchers are also emerging, including solutions like LoRa, Sigfox, ZigBee and Z-Wave.
- What Is LoRaWAN?
LoRaWAN, a technology being developed by Semtech, is designed to for wide-area network (WAN) applications and secures low power consumption for secure bi-directional mobile communications in use cases that include IoT, M2M and industrial implementations.
This technology offers data throughput from 0.3 kbps to 50 kbps within typical ranges of between 2 and 5 km. You can transmit data within up to 15 km with appropriate antenna and depending on your location.
- What Is Sigfox?
Somewhere in the middle between WiFi and cellular, stands Sigfox, which is both a wireless technology and a network service, named after the company that develops it. Sigfox is designed for longer-range IoT or M2M applications by taking advantage of the ISM bands, which does not require a license to use, which is an added advantage. Sigfox connections materialize over a very narrow spectrum for both inbound and outbound communications.
Sigfox supports low data-transfer speeds of between 10 to 1,000 bits per second, which makes this technology suitable for specific IoT use cases only. On the other hand, power consumption is 1,000 times less than in cellular communications, allowing for stand-by time of up to 20 years with a 2.5Ah battery.
- What Is Z-Wave?
Z-Wave is another proprietary technology, mostly for home IoT adoptions, developed by Sigma Designs. Z-Wave takes advantage of the ISM band frequency to connect and operate IoT devices such as light control systems and other sensors.
Data thought ranges from 9600 b/s to 100 kb/s but this low-power RF technology is extremely scalable, supporting up to 232 devices within a full mesh network with no coordinator node.
Commercial use of Z-Wave requires licensing as it is a proprietary technology but there are IoT connectivity alternatives like ZigBee, which are based on global standards such as the IEEE 802.15.4 standard.
- What Is ZigBee?
ZigBee is one of the in-demand IoT solutions based on the IEEE802.15.4 protocol that is an industry-standard wireless networking technology for both industrial and household use.
This IoT connectivity solution is designed to power devices that exchange data less frequently and do not require high data-exchange rates. It operates within a 100m range and supports pre-developed software for IoT implementations using a secure connection with AES-128 encryption.
As you can see, there is no lack of IoT connectivity options for terrestrial applications. Further IoT technologies include solutions like Neul, which is very similar to Sigfox’ Thread which supports home IoT environments over a new IP-based IPv6 networking protocol; Weightless, which supports a number of open wireless-technology standards for IoT applications and LPWAN as well as WirelessHART, which supports mesh networks comprising of up to 216 nodes within a sensor network or process and control monitoring environments.
These are all viable IoT connectivity alternatives but the rapidly growing global IoT ecosystem requires alternatives that cover not only local but also regional and global networks as well.
Satellite IoT Connectivity Technologies
The Internet of Things concept requires global connectivity at its core and while cable and wireless connectivity options are in wide use satellite connections are to play an increasing role in achieving such a global connectedness. Even home automation and home security IoT systems now require satellite connection in certain scenarios while industrial applications have long ago adopted this connectivity type through SCADA systems.
Bringing together hundreds and thousands of connected devices into a single network and transmitting data within and outside such networks poses some challenges to terrestrial connectivity methods and opens the door for introduction of increasingly affordable satellite communications.
- Ka-band and Ku-band Satellite Connections
Most IoT networks and connections now operate by using L-band frequencies that narrowband service providers widely support. On the other hand, an increasing number of connections shift to high-throughput Ka-band and Ku-band, which offer higher data rates and enable wider set of functions. The use cases involving Ka-band and Ku-band connections require satellite connectivity, though.
The rapid development of connected technologies that involve M2M communications and IoT networking at a global scale, gave birth to initiatives such as the NewSpace project. It gets together private companies and entrepreneurs whose target customers are commercial entities aim at making profit from innovative products or services developed in or for space.
You can check their list of commercial satellite constellations and small satellite rocket launchers on the NewSpace Index page, finding no less than 20 satellites operating primarily in the field of IoT/M2M and even more offering IoT/M2M capabilities along with their other functionalities.
Overview of IoT-like Satellite Communication Systems
Traditional satellite systems include operators like the well-known Iridium but also Inmarsat, Thuraya and, Globalstar who are the major market players in the field of M2M/IoT market for years. These are all Mobile Sat Systems (MSS) operators that operate in the L-band spectrum while in the recent years Fixed Sat Systems (FSS) operators such Eutelsat, Intelsat or Asiasat gradually introduce Ku-band and Ka-band satellite connections.
These are viable satellite IoT solutions able to connect terrestrial local area IoT networks such as NB-IoT, Lora, WiFi or Bluetooth-based networks with hundreds of nodes directly to the Internet.
- Direct to Satellite Solutions
A new CubeSat (U-class spacecraft) technology that enables production of miniaturized satellites for specific uses also allows NewSpace companies such as Astrocast, Hiber, Kepler Communications, Kineis, Lacuna, Myrioata and Swarm to implement M2M/IoT connectivity solutions in space using a set of UHF, VHF, S-band and Ku-band services.
The cost of satellite connections decreased sharply during the past decade, making satellite connectivity available to a broader range of commercial customers. For their part, satellites in low Earth orbit enable satellite connections to IoT sensors on the ground using low-power modems.
Terrestrial radio transmission IoT solutions like LTE-M, NB-IoT, LoRaWan, Sigfox and others are able to produce radio transmitters that cost less than US$ 5, which in turn enables the creation of gateways for networks with huge number of IoT devices with the satellite industry offering the means to connect these gateways.
NewSpace are working toward the delivery of IoT satellite solution that is servicing wide area sensor networks in which sensors are operating throughout huge geographical areas and even globally. Here the low power consumption offered by the newest terrestrial IoT connectivity solutions is of utmost importance as it enables to lower the overall cost of a mixed approach that involves both terrestrial and satellite connections.
Thus, Direct To Satellite connectivity relies on low cost and low power IoT technologies that combine both terrestrial (cellular and LPWAN) IoT networks and satellite backhaul services.
Another factor to consider is the rapid growth of private space companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin that are capable of carrying into orbit both traditional satellites and nano-satellites designed specifically for M2M/IoT communications.
For the unbiased observer, the future of IoT connectivity lies with both terrestrial and space communications while the specific choice of a technology or mix of technologies largely depends on the particular use case. Nonetheless, the market is to evidently shift to new connectivity options such as 5G, NB-IoT and Direct to Satellite in the short-term with more options to emerge in the next couple of decades.
You should also follow the developments in fields such as edge computing and cloud-based applications build on container platforms such as Kubernetes. Other IoT-defining technologies that are just emerging are cloud-ready chips like those developed within the Microsoft Azure Sphere project as well as event stream processing applications for IoT.
All these technologies will have a huge impact on how you perform M2M/IoT communications and what connectivity options are available to you, which in turn will define the foreseeable future of the IoT connectivity space as a whole.
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