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Battle of the Bands: Which Network Band is Best for M2M Communications?

Oct 16, 2016

The M2M market is one of the fastest growing in the world – and one of the most confusing given the multitude of connectivity options available for different applications. One of the first major challenges for any M2M developer is deciding which type of connectivity to use, whether Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) or cellular. From a cellular network perspective, the 2G sunset on AT&T and the prospect of 2G being sunsetted by other networks globally is a major factor for consideration. In this post we guide you through the different options available on cellular and the LPWAN alternatives, to help with the decision making process.

2G – An Uncertain Future

2G introduced the mobile transfer of digital information to the world, and is still going strong as the dominant cellular band for many M2M applications. The vast majority of these applications only require the regular transfer of very small amounts of data, but can be located in remote or rural areas across the globe. The prevalence of 2G connectivity around the world makes it an ideal choice for M2M use cases that need a reliable stream of small data bursts on a global scale, such as monitoring wind turbines. Unfortunately, 2G is currently being sunsetted by some networks in the US (with Southeast Asia set to follow) who are refarming the 2G spectrum for more profitable consumer applications which require faster data speeds. Luckily there is a way to combat this, since Mobile Virtual Network Operators like Pod Group provide the freedom to switch between network providers, whether cellular or LPWAN, allowing devices to be future-proofed despite major changes in the market.

3G – A Bit Faster, A Bit More Furious

3G was by far the fastest network band until the advent of 4G in the late 2000s, downloading at speeds of around 3 Mbps and up to 22 Mbps, perfectly fast enough for most, if not all M2M devices. This network band has the potential to transfer much larger amounts of data at faster speeds, and it is also fairly prevalent around the world – although not as widespread as 2G – but again, this band was originally designed for consumer applications. This means that 3G is a better option for those M2M users that require a fairly fast and reliable stream of data, with devices that travel across borders, such as temperature control and monitoring in a national fleet of refrigerated trucks. However, the fear that 3G will eventually go the same way as 2G is making many developers hesitant about relying completely on this network band.

4G – Fastest For Now

4G is already huge in consumer circles, and rightly so, with average speeds 5 times faster than 3G, and up to an impressive 55 Mbps. 4G also utilises full packet switching, which splits data packets over multiple channels, which allows 4G to send large amounts of data extremely quickly with very little down time. However, 4G is by no means universal, and a lot of areas cannot support the radically different network architecture required, meaning that the speed of 4G is still very much limited by lack of infrastructure. Added to this, 4G is now undoubtedly the top choice of the man in the street, which means that despite the opportunities for optimisation there is a risk of it becoming saturated by consumer use, and some providers are already restricting 4G speeds to address this problem. As such, 4G may be the best choice for M2M uses that require fast, high quality data transfer without the need to roam large areas, such as live security footage.

The Future: Fast or Fluid?

5G is currently in international development, and when it is completed to a global standard – hopefully by 2020 – it will provide previously unseen speeds. Theoretically, 5G will be up to 100 times faster than 4G, it will be able to switch seamlessly between network bands, and will combine multiple signals to offer optimum speed for each user. The downside however is similar to that of 4G: the infrastructure required for these new technologies will be too much for many areas to handle, and the time and cost (estimates range between 50 and 60 trillion dollars globally) required for rollout will make it impractical for roaming applications, at least for the foreseeable future.

It has long been recognized that whilst the existing cellular bands offer the advantage of widespread, standardized connectivity globally, they have been almost exclusively designed for consumer use. The fact that major global networks are sunsetting their 2G services demonstrates that the more profitable consumer applications will always take precedence over the M2M and IoT applications being serviced by these bands. The cellular alternative to the existing network bands is NB-IoT, a narrowband technology being developed by the 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project). However, this is going through a standardization process and will likely not be commercially available until 2018. In the meanwhile, a broad range of LPWAN technologies are currently vying for a position in the market. Rather than competing with consumer needs, which will always value speed over range, LPWAN is designed exclusively for M2M communication. There are many options available, including RPMA from Ingenu, ultra narrow band modulation from Sigfox, LoRaWAN and Weightless. Whilst it is likely that there will be several prevailing technologies, due to the huge differences between the requirements of different applications, this highly fragmented market makes it difficult for developers to decide which technology to use when designing devices now.

The Answer!

After all this talk of network bands you may be even more confused about which technology to use. There are advantages and disadvantages of each technology and in many cases, the right choice will depend on the requirements of your specific application. Pod Group’s agnostic approach to M2M/IoT connectivity gives you the flexibility to adapt your connectivity needs, and enables you to respond to changes in the market by future-proofing your application before roll-out in the field. Our M2M/IoT experts can advise you on the best route to take, not only in terms of the connectivity, but also how to ensure that your device and firmware will withstand the test of time despite the ever-changing market conditions.

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