Cellular Technology’s Role in IoT Market Growth
When it comes to the growth of the Internet of Things (IoT) market, there are many astounding predictions. Some estimate it to reach $1 trillion in revenue within the next decade. A recent study by Bain & Company—the Boston-based global management consultancy firm—suggests the combined markets of IoT will surge to about $520 billion in 2021, more than double the $236 billion spent in 2017.
But are such projections founded in reality? Although the IoT and M2M (machine-to-machine) industry has continued to evolve and grow significantly over the last few years, it has yet to fully realize the surging “hockey-stick growth” once enthusiastically forecasted by tech observers.
However, once you consider some of the technologies and solutions that are being deployed—as well as the problems that are solved through various types of connected technology—this unwavering enthusiasm for the IoT market remains justified. What is truly amazing is that we have only scratched the surface of IoT’s potential. The IoT ecosystem expands across so many verticals in both industrial and consumer markets and has so many parts, including hardware devices, software platforms and connectivity. While the IoT market is still segmented, mergers and acquisitions continue to create more and more “one-stop-shops” that will help fuel quicker growth and adoption.
Another factor that is fueling the growth (and enthusiasm) for the IoT market is cellular connectivity. As the primary backbone for most IoT and M2M solutions, cellular connectivity offers a unique range of data-throughput capabilities—making it increasingly affordable and viable. As a result, cellular carriers have embraced IoT’s vision and are making considerable strides in their own IoT solution offerings and support. The advent of 5G technology and new IoT-dedicated LTE networks (such as LTE Cat-M and NB-IoT) will be the next catalyst for rapid IoT growth. These advances will work to support data-intensive applications using 5G, while LTE Cat-M and NB-IoT will help support those IoT solutions with low data requirements and lower power restrictions.
Before rolling out to mobile handsets and devices on lower, mid-band frequencies, 5G will deploy primarily as a fixed wireless solution using millimeter wave frequencies. 5G is expected to be capable of providing peak data speeds up to 20 Gbit/s, with an expected average user speed of 1 Gbit/s. Those IoT applications which promise to benefit most from the increase to 5G speeds are cellular as primary and failover solutions, as well as connected and autonomous vehicles.
5G and 4G LTE
Despite the eager anticipation of the arrival of 5G, dependence on 4G LTE networks should continue into the foreseeable future. With widespread 5G availability still years away, 4G LTE remains a viable cellular-signal solution that carriers intend to stay the course with into the next decade.
After all, not every IoT use case requires the blazing speeds promised by 5G frequencies or even those of the current 4G LTE networks. Many solutions such as remote monitoring, sensors and asset tracking may only require (and transmit) very little data, thus demanding a very low power consumption solution. This is where LTE cat-M and NM-IoT come into play. These new IoT-focused networks, as well as the hardware and chipsets that support them, will allow for a more affordable and easily-scaled solution.
Despite all the advancements in cellular technology in terms of speeds and feeds, there is still one challenge that must be considered and addressed—signal strength and quality. A cellular-connected IoT solution is only as effective and reliable as its signal. Cellular networks are transmitted over radio frequencies (RF) which remain susceptible to a variety of things that may affect the signal strength, quality and ability for a connected device to communicate reliably. It is not only the distance from a tower that dictates how much signal is available, but other variables such as terrain, foliage, weather and man-made obstructions which collectively block or weaken transmitted signal.
The frequency at which a network is transmitting will also have an effect, as lower frequencies in the cellular spectrum (600-900 MHz) travel farther and have much better penetration compared to higher frequencies (1,900-2,500 MHz). 5G will be utilizing millimeter wave frequencies in the 28 GHz range, which will have even less ability to penetrate building materials.
Antennas and Amplifiers
Solving these signal challenges can be as easy as using high-performance external antennas connected to the cellular device. These antennas not only add more power and receive sensitivity but can also be connected to a cable and placed in better signal areas—such as outside of a building or up on a pole—to bypass many signal blocking factors.
Bi-directional amplifiers are also viable solutions for both fixed and mobile applications, servicing a single cellular device or multiple devices simultaneously. However, current amplifier options are limited to current 4G LTE cellular network frequencies and legacy voice and data networks. As new frequencies are implemented for 5G, amplifier and antenna hardware will become available to support them.
Undoubtedly, the future being shaped right now is one of connectivity. It will be exciting to take part in the technological advancements that will cause the IoT market to live up to its most lofty expectations.
Published in Circuit Cellar Magazine Issue 344 • March 2019 — Get a PDF of the IssueBecome a Sponsor