Alternative WAN solutions for Internet of Things

December 7, 2012

SIGFOX LogoAt the local area network (LAN) level we have a lot of different wired and wireless alternatives for M2M connectivity. But at the wide area network (WAN) level we have few options. There are a lot of legacy solutions using the fixed switched phone network (PSTN and fixed broadband Internet access is the dominating way to connect LANs to the Internet. The mobile industry is positioning themselves as the obvious solution for wireless WAN connectivity. The mobile operator alternative includes the cheaper and low capacity 2G option, 3G and the emerging high-capacity and low latency LTE option. 2G is still by far the most utilized option with more than 90% of all M2M subscriptions. Satellite communication provides an almost complete outdoor coverage and is a frequently used alternative especially for tracking.

But there are potentially other alternatives for M2M WAN connectivity. Entrepreneurs are working on the idea to build a dedicated M2M network designed to connect billions of devices in a cost efficient and high quality fashion. One of the most interesting today is Sigfox in France who has designed and built a wireless network optimized for M2M using ultra narrow-band modulation techniques. They started roll out earlier this year and plan to have France covered by the end of this year which is amazing. Sigfox uses unlicensed spectrum (868 MHz in Europe and 915 MHz in the US) normally used by cordless phones. With open sight distances up to 40 km covered and when compared with GSM, for the same level of coverage, Sigfox’s solution requires around 1,000 times less antennas and base stations. The impact on cost is massive – it is 100 times less expensive to build, install and operate. They claim they will have France covered with some 1000 transmission sites. The radio modules embedded in the connected things are tiny and consume 1/50 of the power typically consumed by a cellular M2M module. With such low power consumption batteries could last up to 20 years before recharging or replacement is needed.

The Sigfox network is designed to connect millions of devices that only send messages occasionally – maybe once a week or once a year. The position of the object is included and data is encrypted. The bandwidth is only 100 bps which allows transfer of only small messages. And this will likely be the most common type of connected object why volumes could be very large and economies of scale could help Sigfox bring down cost to a couple of dollars per module. They predict that their efficiencies in running the network will enable them to connect devices for a couple of dollars a year.

Now you might wonder what type of mushrooms they have down in Toulouse. But already now they have announced that Clear Channel Outdoor Holdings is a customer using Sigfox to connect their billboards and MAAF Assurances just announced an agreement for their innovative connected objects’ household protection service, they have suggested to ETSI to make their proprietary UNB technology a standard and in September Intel Capital led their €10 million B round.

Friends, this is for real and companies like Sigfox have the potential to change many games onwards. Connected objects without hassle for a couple of dollars a year sounds attractive, doesn’t it? Bonne chance!


More on mobile M2M

September 17, 2012

The recent announcement from AT&T that they will shut down their 2G network latest year-end 2016 has been discussed a lot lately. It is safe to say that mobile operators in developed markets will continue transitioning their handset users and networks towards 3G and 3G LTE. But mobile operators in general have a growing number of M2M terminals in their networks and they know that over 90% of them are using 2G modules today. Many of them are recently deployed and expected to run without intervention for maybe another five to ten years. Going there, changing SIM, terminal or in worst case the entire device is a very costly thing to do. This is probably why mobile operators in general don’t talk about when they plan to terminate their 2G networks. And I don’t think we will see many announcements like the AT&T one for the next few years, especially not in Europe. Also, let us not forget that many operators in developing countries only have 2G so it will definitely be around for quite some time.

Over the air provisioning of SIM-cards will solve some of the 2G sunset problems but if you need another module in your terminal it will obviously not help. One or two operators in a market, or why not an MVNO, can gather all the 2G terminals and continue service them until the bitter end. The remaining operators would lose some clients but free themselves to go wild on 3 and 4G.

More and more new M2M solutions are using 3G and 3G LTE now. This is natural especially when applications are data rich and require low latency. At Qualcomm IQ last week in Berlin, Steve Mollenkopf, President & COO Qualcomm, stated that one million new 3G connections are added each day. Most of them are not M2M but it means that 3G network capacity and coverage is rapidly improved around the world. And modules and components are coming down in price as volumes grow. And even 3G LTE is spreading. According to Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) 96 operators have launched commercial LTE services in 46 countries so far. But the recent announcement of iPhone 5 reminds of the fragmented frequencies of 3G LTE which needs to be taken into account when looking at a specific M2M 3G LTE solution. 3G LTE uses frequencies between 698 MHz – 3800 MHz, divided in 25 bands for FDD (Frequency division duplex) and 11 bands for TDD (Time division duplex).

The 2G/3G dilemma

January 29, 2012

Today some 95% of the mobile M2M connections are 2G. It is absolutely natural since the functionality and capacity needed for most of today’s applications is fulfilled in 2G and the modules are substantially cheaper. An off the shelf 2G SIM card would cost around $3-4 per month plus $0,5-2/MB data transmitted (in Sweden) and CSD, GPRS and SMS is enough for most M2M applications today. But there are dark clouds in the horizon! We don’t know how far away or how fast they come forward, but they are definitely there. Let’s try look at what these clouds contain.

A typical M2M deployment would count on terminals to be in service more than five years, often 10 or even 15 years. That’s long time! It is about 20 years since the GSM services came to market, and betting on the same networks to still be there with great coverage and good service might be something to consider carefully. A customer service person at my previous mobile operator in Stockholm told me: “sorry but we don’t invest in the 2G network anymore”. One of my companies, Possio, help mobile operators to move analog devices from the fixed network, PSTN, to mobile networks using primarily circuit switched connections in 2G (CSD). They experience operators, one by one, deciding not to introduce any new CSD based services in their network. They keep the existing ones, but obviously not for ever. I believe CSD will not disappear over night but this is worth looking into when making the bets

The connect part of M2M is the least interesting and rewarding. It is the compute part that makes the difference. IP is today, by all means, the dominating communication platform across all industries. The IP development environment is solid and rich, application support endless and skill is really everywhere, from developers to support people. An M2M bet today should in most cases be built on IP and one should really try understand if performance in 2G GPRS/EDGE will be enough for making all wanted computing during the life cycle. It is easy to foul yourself when it comes to performance and capacity. My first business trip with IBM went to Copenhagen 1983 where serious old men unanimously stated that with this capacity nothing is stopping us any longer. This was an ISDN conference.

The end-of-life problem is always something to take into account. Module manufacturers normally bring to market new pin compatible modules for their most popular models. But one day they will issue an end-of-life notice and then it is last order date and finally the spot market to rely on before it is over. In other words, when a market decrease it’s a chicken race between the module vendors. They not only want to understand how fast the market disappears (remember they have good numbers to watch) but they also want to ensure the best moment to bring their customers forward on a new platform and not lose them to a competitor.

The cost of modules for 2G or 3G differs a lot. As of today a 3G module would be roughly double the price of a 2G module and the difference could be $25-30. That is a lot especially if you need many. But it is important to look at the entire cost envelope, both capex and opex, over time. The cost of the actual deployment is normally high since it takes human beings to prepare the installation, to ensure other people involved are available, to get and verify permission for entrance and finally to go on site. Each installation is obviously different depending on industry, security levels, distances, type of application, etc but it can easily take a couple of hours per terminal which would translate into hundreds of dollars. One of my companies is active in retail environments where they often experience a lot of problems especially with access permission and coordination with other people needed (electricians, operator staff, alarm staff, etc). This is why we need to get it right first time – we can’t afford to go back – and why the installations will have to be operational for many years. When planning an M2M solution this might well be the most important aspect of the business case and the biggest risk for failure.

I believe this question – should I stay or should I go – is very important for all of us in the M2M business. There are no generic answers to the question about going 2G or 3G but it seems inevitable that sooner or later 3G will be the primary network why focus and investments thus quality and coverage in 2G networks will erode. How fast this happens is of course also depending on geography. In order to put more light on this important question I will ask a couple of knowledgeable individuals from within the industry about their views and post them here.


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