Cellular IoT crash course, part 1:
Who needs cellular IoT?

7 min read
connected world

The way people and businesses are using the Internet is changing. What used to be a tool to gain access to vast amounts of information and communicate globally with ease is turning into a network of connected devices. These things—controllers, robots, and vehicles, for example—are increasingly making our lives easier by allowing people and systems to operate devices from afar. This ocean of connected devices is dubbed the Internet of Things (IoT). 

The Internet of Things has experienced rapid growth in the last decade. In 2018, 7 billion IoT devices were connected to the Internet. By 2019, there were 26.66 billion. Experts estimate the number will hit 75 billion devices by 2025.

Until recently, the vast majority of IoT devices connected to the Internet through LAN or Wifi. This meant they were tethered to a specific location or at least a location where Wifi or LAN connectivity was available. Today, industrial and enterprise IoT deployments are breaking that tether with cellular IoT. 

In 2019, there were an estimated 1 billion cellular IoT devices connected to the Internet – about 12% of all IoT devices online. According to predictions, that number will reach 4.1 billion devices by 2024, accounting for around 20% of global IoT connections. 

cellular iot connections by segment and technology - source ericssion

Cellular IoT connections by segment and technology (billion). Source: Ericsson Mobility Report. June, 2020

What is cellular IoT?

Cellular IoT, sometimes referred to as mobile IoT, are IoT devices connected to the Internet via cellular networks (manufactured with a SIM slot or eSIM) rather than  Bluetooth, LAN (wired local area network), and Wifi. Your choice of IoT connectivity depends mostly on coverage, bandwidth, power consumption, and security needs.

The standards for cellular network technology are maintained by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) who develops the protocols for each new generation of the cellular network. Here’s a breakdown of the 3GPP’s roadmap of networks for IoT use cases:

  • 2G – Though some countries in the world have decommissioned their almost 30-year-old 2G networks, much like the protocols for voice calls over cellular networks, 2G is still widely used. This is true mostly in rural and remote areas, that are often the locations of choice for agricultural and industrial businesses. The same businesses that are deploying cellular IoT.
  • 3GThe first generation of cellular IoT. The standards were initially defined in the 3GPP 1999 release and updated in the 2008 release of the 3GPP standards revision. Due to limited bandwidth, 3G IoT connections could not, for example, broadcast video. They did, however, offer sufficient reliability for payment data in static deployments and helped establish the foundation for future high-speed releases.
  • 4G LTE In 2008 3GPP announced release 8, which covered Long Term Evolution, or LTE. With this release, there was a focus on user demand for high speeds and reduced latency, as well as the service providers’ need to lower costs to maintain competition. Initially, achieving true 4G wasn’t possible, but LTE helped bridge the gap between 3G and 4G while the worldwide rollout occurred.
    • LTE Advanced – LTE-Advanced was formalized in 2011 with 3GPP release 10. This release saw a focus on higher capacity and a desire to provide higher bitrates in a cost-efficient way. LTE-Advanced saw speeds move to 3 Gbps download and 1.5 Gbps upload. 
  • LTE Cat.0 – Introduced during 3GPP release 12 in 2012. Uplink and downlink throughput was reduced to 1mbps in this release. Power saving mode was introduced here, which allowed for longer battery lives, making it more practical for cellular IoT.
  • LTE Cat MThe next generation of Cat.0 was announced with 3GPP release 13 in 2016. The release saw huge improvements in battery life for devices, up to 10 years in some cases. It allowed for full mobility and in-vehicle handover and greatly improved in-building connectivity. It also saw uplink and downlink speeds of 375 kb/s in half-duplex mode. This meant it was ideal for IoT applications that had low to medium data rate needs.
  • NB-IoTAlso defined as part of 3GPP release 13 in 2016 Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT)  introduced longer ranges, enhanced reliability, and improved battery life, similar to LTE Cat M. This is one of the types of connections that are growing in popularity in IoT deployments and is critical in bridging the gap between 4G and 5G. 
  • 5GCurrently being rolled out to the world, 5G was defined in two steps by 3GPP in release 15 in 2018 and release 16 in early 2020. 5G continues the work started by both LTE Cat M and NB-IoT by improving speeds (up to 10 Gbps), coverage, and greatly increasing battery life.

3gpp network standards initial release per network - source FirstPoint

3GPP standards initial “release” per network.  Source: FirstPoint

7 Growth engines for cellular IoT

There is an increasing demand for connectivity across devices used in various industries. Several factors are driving growth of cellular IoT: 

1. Increased coverage

Unlike WiFi, 5G cellular networks provide much broader coverage and support a significantly larger number of devices. The ability to deploy enterprise 5G networks enables businesses to connect more devices over a larger area, with higher reliability and speed than they ever could with Wifi.

2. Ease and low cost of deployment

Non-cellular IoT devices need to be configured to a specific network before they can connect to the world (select a specific WiFi network or Bluetooth connection). Cellular devices, on the other hand, only need to have an activated SIM/eSIM card inserted and they’re up and running. This makes it simple to scale up and down as needed, without heavy resource investment. 

3. Remote management

The increased coverage provided by the cellular network means these networks can be managed remotely from just about anywhere in the world. You can remotely monitor connectivity, configure devices, and ensure that software and firmware updates are applied. 

4. Maturity of cellular communications protocols for IoT applications (NB-IoT)

Narrowband-IoT (NB-IoT) developed by the 3GPP for cellular IoT devices brings a host of new benefits for IoT devices such as low energy consumption, reliability, and a much longer range. 

5. Network switching/non-steered roaming

Just like your cell phone switches between networks as you’re traveling (aka roaming), cellular IoT devices can move around without having to worry about losing the signal. This is ideal for devices like cars that require a constant connection to ensure safety. 

6. Low latency and high reliability

Many critical applications, such as emergency service communications, still rely on antiquated radio and TETRA technology that is easy to disrupt. With cellular IoT over 5G networks, emergency service communications can be safer and more reliable, providing real-time data to command centers.

7. Security by design

5G networks come with built-in security measures as a way of protecting consumers. Connectivity includes protocols like secure authentication, signaling protection, and data encryption. These measures help ensure that the security problems that plague consumer IoT devices don’t emerge as problems in industrial use.   

8. Low power consumption

Some cellular IoT standards, like NB-IoT, are designed to maximize battery life and reduce power consumption. This makes it possible to deploy devices in remote areas for long terms, as battery life is pushing 10 years in some instances.  

cellular iot application considerations - source techtarget

Cellular IoT application considerations. Source: TechTarget

7 Industries transformed by cellular IoT

Cellular IoT technology revolutionizes industries worldwide. Some, more than others. The impact of cellular IoT is going to depend on how forward-thinking industry leaders are and how competitive the market is. The more competitive the market, the faster adoption is going to be. 

1. Industrial IoT (IIoT) and Industry 4.0

Industrial IoT (IIoT) is revolutionizing the manufacturing industries by allowing smart automation and putting IoT devices to work where humans cannot. It is no wonder that machinery manufacturers and production floor operators alike are eager to replace outdated technology in large factories and warehouses with cellular IIoT.

2. Resources and critical infrastructure

Transportation, water, oil and gas, energy generation and distribution, and mining industries are all poised to take full advantage of cellular IoT technology. Many of these organizations already are. The use of connected sensors and controllers allows owners and operators to make more informed decisions. They can remove the potential for human error from processes, and increases the ability to fix issues before they turn into crises.

3. Smart cities

Cities can use cellular IoT to improve the quality of the services they provide and to increase safety for their citizens. Public transportation and large scale traffic monitoring are just a few of the examples of how cellular IoT technologies are turning cities smarter. Another example is sewage monitoring systems that allow for better maintenance and flood control.

4. Transportation and logistics

Knowing exactly how many vehicles are on the road at any given time can be huge. On a small scale, apps like Waze, help commuters avoid traffic. But when this is taken a step further with IoT data, transportation companies can streamline their entire shipping operation. They can plan more efficient routes for drivers and eventually take advantage of self-driving vehicle technology or autonomous drone delivery systems.

5. Military (MIoT) and surveillance

The military has been at the forefront of this technology for a while now through the use of unmanned surveillance drones and high definition CCTV networks. 5G allows for greater coverage and faster data collection. And these systems can be integrated with AI and machine learning to help track people as they move through the camera network, or detect other possible threats

6. Agriculture

Farming today is moving toward automation and cellular IoT is an integral part of this transformation. Farmers now use sensors to monitor farm conditions remotely and adjust settings on connected equipment from anywhere. For example, if soil sensors indicate that crops need water, water systems can be activated automatically. The same with necessary tasks like spraying fertilizer, this can be managed automatically now using remote drones

7. Science and research

IoT sensors are being increasingly used to track animals with a high degree of accuracy. The coverage provided by cellular networks and the ability to maximize battery life makes it possible for researchers to learn more about their subjects as data comes in. Although there is the odd instance of inflated costs with this kind of monitoring (the roaming fees can be very high if you’re not careful), cellular IoT is a huge windfall for researchers.  

IoT use cases - source Solutions Review

Source: Solutions Review.

Connecting it all – the future of cellular IoT

As cellular IoT technology matures, more and more devices come online. Businesses and industries around the world today stand to create better, more efficient operations that rely on data-driven decision making and automation. 

But, it’s not without its challenges. Device security is always at the forefront of people’s minds. Consumer and commercial IoT devices have been notoriously insecure so far and if cellular IoT is going to become a mainstay of businesses, it’s going to need to take cellular IoT security more seriously. There are some protections baked into recent protocol updates, but these protocols do not provide airtight protection. So, it’s something that needs to be considered nonetheless.

Ready to learn more? Check out Cellular IoT crash course part 2: Tackling the Challenges of Cellular IoT

Want to understand how to take your cellular IoT deployments to the next level

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