Tackling IoT on the Wavefront

In many ways, discourse around the Internet of Things has been framed around devices and data. Visioning of novel business models and use cases enabled by IoT has trained its eye on cloud-based applications that can deliver new business insight and/or new citizen services based on information collected by ubiquitous sensor networks in industry, urban settings and the environment. But this perspective neglects a critical component in the evolving IoT ecosystem – the communications networks that serve as the foundation for IoT by connecting the connected devices. IoT promises substantial opportunity for new revenue streams for ICT product vendors and massive efficiency improvements for organizations that deploy; however, these outcomes depend on CSP innovation aimed at building the communications infrastructure needed to haul massive amounts of IoT data from devices that have been variously estimated at 50 billion, 26 billion and which Juniper Research now estimates will reach 38 billion by 2020.

At the Wavefront Summit 2015 held in Ottawa this spring, InsightaaS had a chance to address some of this imbalance through conversations with executives from two key players in IoT communications – BC-based Sierra Wireless, which connects the devices, and Swedish communications service provider Ericsson, which provides the communications backbone.

Dragan Nerandzic, CTO, Ericsson Canada
Dragan Nerandzic, CTO, Ericsson Canada

The largest telecommunications provider in the world, Ericsson launched its IoT strategy back in 2009 with a concept the company called the “Networked Society,” which treats connectivity as the starting point for transformative innovation, collaboration and socializing that will help resolve many of the world’s biggest challenges. Ericsson is in fact author of the oft-cited 50 billion device by 2020 estimate. While the company has over 140 years of experience connecting fixed devices, in his presentation at the Summit, Dragan Nerandzic, CTO, Ericsson Canada, noted that as in mobile scenarios, IoT connectivity will be largely wireless, another key focus for the company. To support the massive growth in data transfer rates associated with IoT that Ericsson believes will increase 12 fold by 2020, the company is building on its investment over time in the development of 3G, 4G, LTE with current work on LTE Advanced and 5G technologies out of its Ottawa lab and elsewhere.

As Nerandzic described it, networking evolution has enabled delivery of the speed, capacity and affordability required by IoT. While the primary use case for 32 Mbps 3G networks was voice, increasing need to support data traffic resulted in the development of 4G networks and ultimately, LTE which is highly optimized for data and can support 150 Mbps. Ericsson’s LTE Advanced which can support up to 300 Mbps launched in Canada last year, while 450 Mbps service launched in Australia this year. Nerandzic explained: “These speeds are increasing very quickly, and because we can put so much capacity on the networks, the price per gigabyte has come down to more affordable levels. At the same time, the networks that are being built provide more coverage, and hence can support more people. When we think about the Internet of Things, we have to think about accommodating huge demand and scalability… the need to connect 50 billion devices, at a cheaper rate than was needed to connect smartphones. That is why we have to make sure the applications are as efficient as possible.”

Ericsson believes that three technologies are key to IoT transformation: the role of the telecommunications company is changing from simple provider of connectivity to creator of the mobile, broadband and cloud infrastructure platforms that will enable the seamless creation of new applications and business models to transform a range of industries including energy, Smart Grid, motor vehicle, oil & gas, mining, shipping, healthcare. This spring, the company announced an expansion of its Montreal lab designed to enhance the integration of next generation telecom services, offer support for the company’s cloud-based technologies through network visualization, and support development of 5G wireless services, video capabilities and new voice and data platforms and services. This kind of innovation in integrated networking and data centre services aims at fulfilling “Ericsson’s vision that everything that would benefit from connection, will be connected,” Nerandzic explained. Over the past ten years, the company has devoted over CN$5 billion in R&D “to make this vision reality.”

Once of the key challenges in IoT connectivity is the use of multiple devices with different networking protocols. While Ericsson’s heritage is in the use of globally accepted open standards; as Nerandzic explained, problems arise today since all devices have to respect 4G or LTE protocols which consume the same amount of energy from each. The result is that battery life for some devices can be quite limited. Many chip and device makers are working to develop low power technologies for IoT applications: Ericsson, similarly, is leveraging its open standards strategy in its development of 5G while also working on the energy issue. “In 5G technology we will change this,” he explained: “they [devices] will still respect the same technology, but the protocol will be adjusted for the nature of the device – so that a smoke alarm, for example, does not need to have huge bandwidth in order to sound the alarm. It needs to have good connectivity and low latency for reliability and safety, but bandwidth is not necessarily the primary issue.”

Sierra’s path to IoT has quite different from Ericsson’s. In 2012, the company did an about face, switching gears from the sale of USB modems and hotspots to network operators to full time commitment to M2M communications, bolstered through the acquisition of specialist firms such as Wavecom, a French provider of 2G M2M services.

Currently, Sierra provides three products: AirPrime wireless modules that are embedded in partner (ex. Cisco, Itron) devices to connect these to cellular networks, self-contained hardware/software AirLink gateways that connect directly to the network, and the AirVantage M2M cloud platform that can translate OT (operational technology) protocols to Internet language. Sierra modules contain phone chips from providers such as Intel and Qualcomm, which are adapted for IoT environments – introducing tolerance for greater temperature ranges or rugged conditions – and have modified behaviours that allow modules to speak machine language to each other via cellular networks.

Larry Zibrik, VP, market development, Sierra Wireless
Larry Zibrik, VP, market development, Sierra Wireless

In its cloud and gateway portfolio, Sierra addresses issues managing connectivity for IoT devices with multiple networking protocols. According to Larry Zibrik, VP, market development, Sierra Wireless, the company has managed this interoperability challenge through the creation, over a twenty-year period, of communications libraries for the integration of long-standing protocols such as SCADA, OBD or Modbus, adding new items to the gateway when the company enters a new vertical market. “There are literally hundreds of them,” Zibrik explained, “that you can configure to talk to your device.” Illustrating the unique use cases for gateways and modules, he observed: “If you had fifty high value diesel generators, you would want to buy fifty gateways and configure them to talk machine language and send the data back to the network, and then have a backend application or cloud service sort the data. If you were building a million meters, you would take a Sierra module and have an engineering team custom design and build it within the meter. The reason is cost.”

The key mechanism for integration of customer data is the Sierra AirVantage cloud-based platform, an API layer that enables device control and management of data from multiple or remote devices to deliver information directly to a customer’s business systems. “Even if the protocols are totally esoteric at the bottom – totally different – we can roll them up and put them into a standard API set,” Zibrik explained. Since this API is IP-based, customers who typically have IT knowledge and resources are then able to build applications, analytics engines on top of AirVantage standardized data. The Sierra piece is the IT/OT interface, which is often not well understood.

Interestingly, while Nerandzic urged the use of LTE Advanced or 5G for all applications due to the cost efficiencies that have been achieved in these platforms, Zibrik expanded on this through discussion of differentiated network technologies that are adapted to IoT scenarios. As did Nerandzic, he described much network evolution as a function of the need for speed: cellular networks were built for phones, which require as much speed as possible for voice and for increasingly rich applications that consume more and more bandwidth. However, Zibrik also pointed to IoT application need for longevity: “As the networks evolved – from 2G to 3G and 4G – the infrastructure got faster and the technologies got better, and services came down in price. But the thing about an M2M or IoT customer is that when they deploy that network, they expect it to be there in ten years’ time: when you’re building industrial applications you need a long lifespan, whereas with a phone, lifespan can be measured in months.” Currently, many organizations are standardizing on LTE technology, but in Zibrik’s view, “there is way too much speed there for IoT, and speed always implies expense.” As a result, providers in the industry are developing lower-speed variants of LTE – LTE M, LTE Cat 1 and Cat 0 – that mimic G2, but reside on an LTE footprint that will have a long life to match the service life of the device. In this way, the provider avoids running an inefficient technology (G2) which can be a costly proposition, but can deliver a low speed solution suited to the IoT market. “These new concepts in LTE allow you to use high speed networks, but very low data rates, which actually provides the better in-house penetration that we need in IoT at lower cost,” he explained.

Zibrik applauded the enormous innovation that is currently underway in the communications industry, but added that for individuals who are not technically-minded – a.k.a. the enterprise buyer – advance in communications capabilities is sometimes difficult to grasp. As a better means for the industry to relay messaging on IoT potential, he advised outline of new implementation use cases that are achieved through partnership with providers of the other IoT components that are needed to bring IoT to life. This total solution approach – which may involve solving for multiple implementation challenges such as remote location or high population density, as well as the need to deploy multiple network technologies and architectures – is best able, Zibrik believes, to drive adoption in what is currently a very fragmented market, even on the networking side. “The real rubber hits the road, when you start deploying customers, and you realize what their challenges are,” he added, and why, perhaps, in efforts to remove complexity from IoT adoption, focus has been placed on the successful business application than on the hairy world of network protocols, standards, speeds, capacity and security.