New Wireless Options for M2M

Mike Fahrion, Vice President of IoT Technologies
Advantech B+B SmartWorx

Part of me is delighted by the fact that I can now use cellular LTE and Wi-Fi to stream HD Netflix movies to my cell phone. But the nerd in me understands that all of this is a mixed blessing when it comes to M2M. LTE and advanced Wi-Fi will be enormously valuable in M2M applications that can make good use of their capabilities, like real time, full motion, video security systems. But many M2M applications dont need the functionality. Higher speeds, higher frequencies and wider channels drive higher power consumption while shortening range. In M2M, low power, low cost and long range are often far more important than speed and bandwidth.

Fortunately, the cellular carriers understand this. As they sunset their old 2G networks, some carriers are rolling out Category 1 LTE. Cat 1 LTE limits download performance to a theoretical 10 Mbps. This is more than ample for most M2M applications, and it lowers the cost of the radios as well as the associated data plans. For end users who currently rely upon 2G technology, Cat 1 will definitely be a step in the right direction. The next step will be even better.

LTE radios are expensive and power hungry. Cat 1 LTE equipment is cheaper, but it doesnt really address the power issue. A narrowband LTE spec is being finalized that will be even slower (think hundreds of kbps) than Cat 1, much less expensive, and very low power. Narrowband LTE networks will probably start coming online in 2018. If you use cellular routers for M2M youll be glad to see LTE picking up these new tricks.

At the same time, the folks who define the specifications for Wi-Fi have recognized that they need to embrace a massive opportunity. Call this opportunity advanced M2M, industrial IoT, SCADA 2.0 or whatever you like, but it has the worlds attention. That attention is going to drive incredible scale, because it means that we are going to have standards, and that those standards are going to have the backing of the semiconductor industry. Well see radios that provide incredible performance. Volumes will soar, prices will plunge, and its all good news for M2M.

For example, ten years ago a five mile wireless IP link between wellheads would have cost anywhere between $1000 and $3000 in hardware, plus antennas. Getting anything close to a 1 Mbps connection would have been excellent. Today, numerous vendors can provide the same solution using Wi-Fi technology, and they can provide ten times the performance at one tenth of the cost. And thats not even the new stuff.

Lets take a look at whats currently shaking in wireless tech.

Wzzard_1Start with Wi-Fi. The Wi-Fi Alliance has its eye on the world of wearables and they probably arent pleased to see how much traction Bluetooth Low Energy is getting in that space. So theyve got a new spec in the works. 802.11ah, nicknamed Wi-Fi HaLow, will drop the frequency below 1GHz and channel width as low as 1 MHz. This is going to extend range — maybe as high as 1 km. It will also drop power consumption to battery-power range. The Wi-Fi Alliance may be targeting wearables, but this will make Wi-Fi a serious contender in M2M as well Considering the size of the Wi-Fi market, you can expect to start seeing tri-band 802.11 access points before the specification has even been formally adopted.

There are some new kids on the block in M2M, too. For example, both Sigfox and LoRA are contending for the low power WAN market. Both have technology that has cranked up the receive sensitivity in their radios — way up. The result has been radios that feature low bandwidth, long range and low cost. These technologies are targeted at connecting sleepy sensors over long distances. Both are already available and competing for market share.

And dont forget wireless mesh networks. They were a media darling a decade ago, and they got a lot of press. But the technology available at the time lagged behind the promises. Fast forward to the present, and we have developed wireless mesh technologies that provide amazing reliability and resilience at micro-power levels. Wireless HART is now deployed throughout the process control industry. Its cousin, SmartmeshIP, is rolling out in applications like condition based monitoring, energy optimization and traditional SCADA.

Even Bluetooth is getting more interesting. First it added the low energy capability, to broadcast advertising packets. Now its adding a multi-hop broadcast capability that turns Bluetooth nodes into members of a network, and the nodes are able to relay data across the entire system.

The newest high speed, high bandwidth technology usually gets the front page headline. But low speed and low bandwidth technology is equally important. Wireless M2M has uses for both, and the tools just keep getting better.

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