Getting the Network Ready to Meet IoT Expectations

network iot

All IoT devices are not created equal. Aside from the widely varying bandwidth and latency requirements from Fitbit, to a refrigerator sensor, to robotics, and to autonomous automobiles, there are also widely varying service priorities. While a heart or blood glucose level monitor will take up very little bandwidth in comparison to an in-car entertainment system, the priority of the former examples clearly outweighs the bandwidth intensive video streaming for entertainment as it can literally mean a matter of life or death. Responsibility for maintaining connectivity and service quality for these devices falls primarily onto the communications service provider.

With industry analysts predicting that the number of connected devices will reach 8 to 11 billion by the end of 2018 and grow to 20 to 50 billion devices by 2020, the surge of IoT is showing no signs of letting up.  We’re already seeing it start to touch all aspects of the digital economy, and unlock enormous benefits for a range of sectors, from agriculture to automotive.

As more and more ‘things’ become connected while sensors, mobile devices, digital services and broadband networks dramatically increase the volume, velocity and variety of data traversing the network infrastructure, the number of transactions occurring in the network grows. There is an increased focus on improving end-user experience, and service delivery assurance will become essential for the growth and success of IoT.

As Steven Max Patterson notes in his 2017 article, “Network engineering is key to meeting IoT expectations.” “One size does not fit all applications. The characteristics of a robust communications layer, frequency band, maximum signal rate, nominal range, cryptography, network type, and coexistence mechanisms point that it is not magic but a lot of systems design and engineering to build application-specific communications to interconnect these devices.”

Currently, there are several known IoT communications technologies including: NB (Narrow Band) IoT, LTE-M (Machine), SigFox, LoRa, BlueTooth, and Wifi as well as the somewhat lesser ZigBee, ZWave, Near Field Communication (NFC), HomePlug, and 6LowPAN and Thread. As is the cases with technology maturation eventually only a few of these technologies will survive and become defacto communications for IoT. Cost, performance, availability, ease of use, and market leader use will drive this technology Darwinism to cull out the preferred communications technologies for IoT.

Last June, a study by the telecom analyst and research firm, 451 Research, showed that WiFi, Ethernet, 3G/4G, and Blue Tooth were the top network connectivity communication options for IoT. The newer narrow band IoT communications LTE-M, LoRa, NB-IoT and Sigfox had much lower use at the time. However, the large, early adopter communications service providers have already made significant investments in LTE-M and NB IoT networks. AT&T and Verizon have committed to nationwide LTE-M networks and a number of companies are building LPWA (Low Power Wide Area) networks in unlicensed bands, most notably Comcast using LoRa (Analysys Mason Dec 13, 2016). At IoT World 2017 in May, Sprint said it is on track to complete its LTE Cat-1 deployments by the end of July and reported it will begin deploying LTE M technology in the middle of next year, and Cat-NB1 is planned for the future. Sprint has teamed up with Ericsson to help facilitate the deployments. And T-Mobile U.S. announced in September that it will be building a nationwide NB-IoT and LTE-M network in 2018 after completing successful NB-IoT network testing in July (Fierce Wireless, September 11, 2017). Overseas, Deutsches Telekom activated NB-IoT networks in Germany and Netherlands as did the Big Three Chinese mobile operators in the 2Q of 2017.

As Steven Max Patterson further notes: “More networking technologies will come on the scene as engineers try to match specifics of cost and performance. The constraints of bandwidth, range and power efficiency will remain tightly tied to the application. And none of the alternatives address real-time control that will require 5G networks which carriers are just beginning to prototype in test beds. Though there are competing communications methods listed, most are different enough that a specific IoT application will narrow most choices to one or two choices.”

The expanding world of IoT devices and services will take on an amalgam of existing and new network technologies, starting with enhanced radio access, dedicated network infrastructure, new service priority markings and performance monitoring, to assure the quality of service. Managing this new technology and the explosion of devices and services starts with visibility and a service assurance solution that scales and provides real-time insights and analytics to ensure the successful rollout and ongoing service quality.

~John English, Sr. Solutions Marketing Manager, NETSCOUT