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The Future of IoT: Small is the New Big

By Arti Loftus
June 30, 2020

Cellular 4G networks were not originally designed or engineered to support IoT deployments; with the density of cellular services in the most populated and developed regions across the globe, the technology was invented for “always on” hyperconnected mobile devices, supporting data, voice, video, applications and “human communications.”

Cellular-based IoT projects have been educational. The mobile sessions drain batteries very quickly – making battery powered IoT devices challenging, because replacing batteries is expensive and potentially complicated. Business models have been the second hurdle – data charges can skyrocket without the right plan in place.

To solve for these challenges, alternative network protocols, platforms and network services have been built around LoRa, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and a variety of mesh solutions to support processing and data relay at the edge, sending data via gateways to the cloud.

With the advent of LTE-M and NB-IoT, all of this has been changing. These technologies dramatically reduce power consumption, and the way they exchange data (sending and receiving) reduces data consumption and therefore recurring expense.

This important progression has inspired innovators to create new radio systems.

Developers now have access to “nano” chips from semi-conductor companies, and they embed them into modules, increasingly smaller form factors that add a processor, memory, power storage, and ports for antenna and other features.  Some of these modules even work with 2G and/or GPS.

The commercial availability of 5G-ready, transitional chipsets designed specifically for low power and low bandwidth IoT applications are now available to developers in the form of cellular modules. Cellular modules build on the base functionality of the chipset, but add additional support like firmware, memory, processors, and a simplified means to connect the device to a circuit board.

Embedded modems are the next level in the continuum of adding 5G connectivity to an IoT device.  Embedded modems build on the functionality of the module, adding features like power management, an on-board MCU, a SIM interface, the ability to update firmware over the air (FOTA), very simple and consistent pins for connecting to a circuit board and an antenna, and as a result are the simplest way to add 5G cellular connectivity. Furthermore, embedded modems are certified by carriers as an “End Device”, meaning that the final IoT device containing the embedded modem does not need to go through any further carrier certifications.  Each step in the continuum from Chipset to Module to Embedded Modem represents a reduction in technical risk, a reduction in development timelines and a reduction in time to market.

Given this context – massive opportunities are surfacing which simply were untenable a few years ago.

Small is the new big.

Just as smartphones got smaller and more convenient while becoming more powerful, the trend in IoT is towards devices which are small, ruggedized, affordable, and are paired with software solutions which are moving towards “Zero Touch” in the most advanced cases (for example, ClearBlade’s IoT platform which automatically registers devices to the system, provisioning them in minutes, and providing management capabilities and extensive reporting and analytics).

NimbeLink, a company based in Minnesota, USA, is about to release its smallest embedded modem, fully certified for LTE-M, engineered for global standards (including NB-IoT – NB1 and NB2), with an integrated GPS/GNSS radio.

Their “Skywire Nano” is a mere 22mm x 15mm x4mm and supports download speeds of LTE-M: 375 Kbps | NB-IoT: 60 Kbps, and upload speeds of LTE-M: 300 Kbps | NB-IoT: 30 Kbps.

“Power consumption was built into the design from the ground up,” Kurt Larson, CTO said, “to extend battery life. We have been working with our clients and partners to build, test and perfect the Skywire Nano and are ready to roll the modem out for general availability, with full documentation and support. We are truly grateful to all the developers who have contributed their insight and wish lists and are excited to roll out a high-quality product which enterprises, service providers, integrator and others in the ecosystem will appreciate.”

The NL-SWN-LTE-NRF9160 is a super small device, requiring no carrier certification, and sporting a user-accessible applications processor, a Verizon soldered-down SIM, support for 3FF removable SIM cards, Power Save Mode (PSM) and eDRX.

“This is a substantial investment for us,” Larson continued. “The process of starting at the module level requires a lot of time and expertise. The entire process might take a year or more.  This is not only due to the design and development, but also the certification of a product. The entire end-product, inclusive of the modem, must be ‘certified’ to be on the cellular network.  If the certification fails, which it often does, the entire product must be redesigned and re-certified. And iterated again until certification is complete. We’re solving for a big problem with a very small form factor solution.”

“Skywire modems eliminate the need for our customers to go through certification of their end products, so not only is the device small, powerful and easy to configure, but the ability to bring a connected product to market using it has sped up to a matter of weeks, rather than months or even years of risky attempts that too often fail,” Larson said.

Building with an end-device certified modem eliminates the complexity of dealing with the costs and timelines associated with the certification process, as well as dramatically reducing the costs and timelines of prototyping and establishing a production line.

Other companies offering a range IoT modems include Digi, Inseego, Lantronix, MultiTech, Orbcomm, Sierra Wireless, Telit, Thales Group, and others.

Arti Loftus is an experienced Information Technology specialist with a demonstrated history of working in the research, writing, and editing industry with many published articles under her belt.

Edited by Ken Briodagh

Special Correspondent

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