Now is the Time for Cellular IoT

By Special Guest
Prashanth Shetty, VP, global marketing, Ayla Networks
March 08, 2019

For most of the relatively short history of the Internet of Things (IoT), Wi-Fi has been the go-to wireless option for many applications.

The Wi-Fi standard—or, to be more technically precise, IEEE 802.11 in all its a, b, g, n, and ac variants—offers high throughput for a wireless standard, in the range of hundreds of megabits per second. It is becoming pervasive within homes and buildings, and it’s increasingly common to find Wi-Fi connectivity in both municipal and privately owned outdoor spaces. Because of its ready availability, Wi-Fi has become the convenient connectivity choice for most smart home and smart building applications.

But Wi-Fi has some serious drawbacks for IoT, as well. Wi-Fi signals have a limited range, typically tens of meters, and they have trouble penetrating concrete and similar obstacles. That makes Wi-Fi communications challenging within large buildings, across cities, and in many commercial settings.

The high data rates of Wi-Fi—a plus for things like transferring multimedia or other large files—are overkill for most IoT devices, which generally transmit small amounts of data in short bursts. In addition, Wi-Fi networks tend to be difficult to make secure and reliable. Many enterprises report that Wi-Fi can be a real pain when it comes to onboarding and deploying IoT devices. For instance, a chain of coffee shops deployed in-store Wi-Fi for IoT-based asset tracking of their coffee equipment. But the Wi-Fi was unreliable, and store employees found it cumbersome to manage.

These disadvantages have made Wi-Fi inappropriate for a wide swath of IoT applications, including streetlights, parking meters, point-of-sale (PoS) retail registers, vehicles, heating systems, shipping containers, industrial robots, transfusion pumps, and agricultural monitors.

So What About Cellular Communications for IoT?

Cellular IoT connects devices using the same broad-coverage cellular network as smartphones use. Sounds like an obvious alternative to Wi-Fi, doesn’t it?

The problem is that historically, cellular modules have been expensive, which added to the price tag of building cellular IoT devices. Additionally, cellular services costs dwarfed those of Wi-Fi for internet access, in large part because they couldn’t take advantage of over-the-air (OTA) updates. Even more discouraging for small, battery-operated IoT devices was cellular’s enormous power demands, which quickly drained batteries.

Finally, cellular coverage tended to be inconsistent, whether inside structures or in particular global locations.

Recent Advances Shift the Cellular IoT Story

Recently, however, cellular IoT has become a viable option to Wi-Fi IoT, for three main reasons:

  1. Costs have fallen. Low-cost low-power wide area (LPWA) services on cellular networks are now available globally. 4G Long-Term Evolution (LTE) networks provide roughly 10 times the performance of 3G with extremely high device densities. LTE IoT devices cost far less to manufacture than 2G/3G IoT because the low-power cellular modules used in IoT devices require only half-duplex and narrow bandwidth. In addition, even non-discounted data plans on LPWA LTE can cost under $1/month per device, and service costs are reduced through long battery lives and the ability to perform OTA service, troubleshooting, and updates. As a result, large-scale cellular IoT deployments can be remarkably cost-effective—and might even rival Wi-Fi costs.
  2. It works anywhere. LPWA LTE operates in licensed spectrums in almost every country worldwide, offering its global coverage with seven times the penetration power of standard cellular service. That means LPWA cellular IoT can operate virtually anywhere, even from deep in a parking garage, enabling at-scale IoT deployments. As a side note, LTE offers two low-cost and complementary LPWA services for IoT: LTE-M (also called LTE Cat-M1 or eMTC), a mobile-device cellular service, and NB-IoT (narrow-band IoT, also called Cat NB-1), a fixed-device cellular service that’s ideally suited to IoT applications’ tolerance for greater latency, low data throughput, and lack of voice support while extending battery life up to 20 years.
  1. It’s easy to get started. IoT platform providers, working in concert with cellular service providers, are making it plug-and-play easy to add 2G, 3G, and 4G cellular connectivity to IoT device portfolios—with 5G on the horizon.

In addition, enterprise IoT is rapidly coming of age. Increasingly, commercial organizations are leveraging IoT for asset tracking and tracing, field servicing of equipment, and other use cases that are ideal for cellular communications.

For all these reasons, now is the time for cellular IoT.

Still, it takes much more than the decision to use cellular IoT to design, deploy, and manage a successful IoT project. To easily add cellular IoT to any device—then manage an entire IoT operation at scale, without special engineering or development efforts—requires choosing the right IoT cellular technology and services partners.

About the author: Prashanth Shetty is VP, global marketing, Ayla Networks in Santa Clara, California. He welcomes questions from enterprises about cellular IoT solutions. Contact him at prashanth [at]

Edited by Ken Briodagh
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