Enabling IoT: Cellular Connectivity

By Kenta Yasukawa

The boundaries of wireless technologies are continuing to expand, creating new opportunities for cellular IoT connectivity. The IoT market is growing rapidly with IoT connections expected to reach 3.5bn by 2023 according to a 2018 Ericsson Mobility report.

IoT technology has universal applications and benefits, with the capacity to improve business operations in any sector. A KPMG survey of 750 tech leaders revealed that IoT will drive business transformation in the next three years and provide enormous benefits to life, society and the environment. Cellular connectivity is well-positioned to support both the broad requirements of the mass IoT market as well as the more specific and complex needs of specialized IoT environments like agriculture, industry, and transportation. IoT projects can take advantage of existing 3G/LTE channels as well as emerging channels such as 5G/CatM, enabling reliable coverage over a wide area.

Framing the problem:

Based on our everyday experience with Wi-Fi, we often think of connectivity as a simple connection between two points. And in a small set of use cases in IoT, such as smart toasters or smart washing machines, Wi-Fi is perfectly suitable. However, with analysts predicting that spending on IoT technologies will reach $1.2 trillion by 2022 and with practical implementations expected across sectors from consumer, insurance, and healthcare to manufacturing, transportation, smart buildings and smart cities, it’s clear that the future will be built on a managed network that covers wide areas with high availability, security and roaming capability. Cellular connectivity can fulfill these requirements, making it the obvious choice for most IoT use cases outside the smart home.

Another thing that needs to be seriously considered when building an IoT system is scalability. It is not always easy to predict how many devices will be connected or how much data will need to be stored. Therefore, cloud computing environments are generally preferred for IoT backend systems because of their elasticity and pay-as-you-grow pricing model. This allows IoT systems to start small and scale up on the back end  as their deployment grows. Offloading computational resources and storage to the cloud also reduces the computing needs of IoT devices, allowing affordable, low-spec devices to perform well in the field and reducing both overall deployment costs and barriers to growth.

 While there are various methods through which these IoT devices can be connected to the cloud, most options simply connect devices via the public Internet. This requires relatively constrained devices to perform “heavy lifting” tasks including encryption of data, storage of unique authentication credentials and use of cloud-friendly protocols that carry a high communication overhead. There is therefore a pressing need for a “smart pipe” approach that connects IoT devices directly to cloud and offloads high bandwidth and memory-intensive elements from the devices to the network.

Achieving Smarter Connectivity:

A developer will look for specific qualities in wireless connectivity: Does it work in a constrained environment? Does it actively support improved security? Does it provide built in links to the cloud and remove the need to store unique credentials on the device?

When working in constrained environments, over long distances, or in remote locations, connectivity needs to actively participate in reducing the burden on devices. Smart cloud connectivity allows IoT users to offload software development kits (SDKs) and encryption, reducing power consumption, enhancing security, directly resolving some of the biggest challenges currently limiting wider deployment of IoT technologies.

Directly integrating cellular connectivity with leading cloud platforms has the potential to solve common problems and challenges. For example, many of the pressing concerns in IoT security and implementation can be mitigated by establishing a cellular connection directly to an in-cloud private network without going through the public Internet and allowing a device’s SIM card to perform cloud authentication.

IoT and cellular connectivity: A world of possibilities

There is no shortage in the variety of businesses and industries experimenting with IoT technology. These technologies provide increased levels of monitoring, analytics, production and optimization. From industry and agriculture to retail and consumer electronics, IoT is optimizing efficiency and reducing unnecessary waste. Indeed, companies that adopt IoT technologies are now reporting efficiency improvements of over 80%.  

Those improvements in efficiency across all categories are urgently needed. With the global population now expected to reach nearly 10bn by 2050, a 70% increase in food production will be required to keep us all from going hungry. ‘Precision Agriculture,’ which directly addresses issues like crop productivity and land management, is predicted to reach a market value of $26.8b by 2020. The connected devices of IoT represent an integral part of this smart agriculture movement. IoT systems can employ sensors to monitor temperature, light and moisture and automate processes like planting, irrigation, fertilization or even harvesting to reduce wastage. IoT technologies are removing the guesswork and inaccuracy of traditional farming and will play a central role in meeting future global food demands.

Another sector in which you will find IoT technologies having a transformative impact is in the Beekeeping industry. Beekeepers are using IoT technologies to remotely monitor the health and production of beehives. The sensors are places inside the beehive and capture data on the humidity, temperature, sounds, vibrations, geolocation and weight of the hive. The data collected is then transmitted via cellular to the cloud. Beekeepers can analyse the data collected and intervene in the event of a colony collapse.

These are just a few of the numerous examples of the countless ways IoT is being used in a range of sectors. The Internet of Things will continue to have a transformative impact on the world. With the capacity to improve efficiency and operations in any sector, IoT devices, cellular connectivity and the cloud will continue to revolutionize business.

Kenta Yasukawa is CTO and co-founder of SORACOM, a global provider of smart connectivity for the Internet of Things (IoT). Soracom cellular and LPWA connectivity have been field-tested by over 10,000 customers worldwide and designed specifically for the needs of connected devices. Before co-founding Soracom, Kenta served as a Solutions Architect with AWS and conducted research for connected homes and cars at Ericsson Research in Tokyo and Stockholm. Kenta holds a PhD in Engineering from the Tokyo Institute of Technology, with additional studies in Computer Science at Columbia University’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science.

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