Will LTE Render Spectrum Crunch Less “Crunchy” For M2M Devices?

With the explosion of wireless networks and cheap devices, the “internet of things” is just beginning to emerge as one of the major tech developments of our age.

The “internet of things” is a constantly-connected loop of devices that relay information back to a computer or server and receive instructions based on that information. This could be a remotely-located irrigation system that turns itself off when rain is forecast, or an electronic billboard that monitors traffic conditions and adjusts its ads accordingly, or even (and we think this one’s a little creepy) a store display that runs images of a shopper’s face through face-recognition software and then adjusts its offerings according to the shopper’s age and ethnicity. We can’t be the only ones thinking this could go wildly wrong.

In our recent post on spectrum crunch, we highlighted how diminishing bandwidth for wireless signals specifically hampers machine-to-machine (M2M) devices—especially the EOBRs found in an increasing number of trucks—and the difficulty some device developers face as they try to plan for the future.

A stronger, leaner “internet of things”

Sierra Wireless—a wireless device developer based in British Columbia—recently released a white paper (sign-in required) that focuses on how LTE networks open new possibilities for M2M developers.

LTE (which stands for Long Term Evolution) is the vanguard of the 4G wireless standard and currently being rolled out internationally. It promises download speeds of 300 MB/s and latency of 5 ms (roughly speaking, “latency” is how quickly data moves across a network). It also operates across a wide bandwidth, from 1.4 MHz to 20 MHz. For anyone using a smartphone, tablet, or laptop on a wireless network, LTE offers significantly faster download and upload speeds, and the promise of fewer dropped connections than the current 3G standard.

But the cost of developing modules for the LTE standard is high, and has led some wireless developers (especially those targeting the M2M market) to maintain their reliance on 3G (or even 2G in some cases), which is less expensive. Sierra Wireless wants developers to start thinking about the future, though, and points to several advantages of LTE over 2G and 3G. These include:

  • Longevity: the LTE standard will persist much longer than the current 3G and 2G standards
  • Potentially Lower Service Costs: due to its architecture, LTE networks are simpler than the current HSPA/HSPA+ networks, and could lead to lower life-cycle costs
  • Scalability: LTE is built on the IPv6 protocol, which greatly expands the number of devices that can exist within the network (as compared to the current IPv4 protocol), making it much easier to scale up.

LTE isn’t just for blazing-fast connections

Some M2M devices will benefit greatly from the speeds promised by LTE—especially those that rely on video-streaming—but many other lower-speed devices can take advantage of the reduced latency to perform in environments where fast responses are critical, like alarm systems, traffic controls, and medical devices.

And the standards-making bodies for LTE are working to adapt the LTE protocol to carve out a niche in the landscape for M2M devices. These changes would include

  • Relegating low-cost devices to a slim portion of LTE’s overall bandwidth
  • Use half duplex and single receivers, instead of full duplex and diversity receivers like current LTE devices
  • Be able to transmit with lower power to save on resources

Over time, the cost of developing devices for LTE will come down, and by adopting standards for low-cost LTE devices, developers can find ways to take advantage of LTE’s higher speed and lower latency, enhanced scalability, and overall lower cost of operation for their M2M operations.