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Reliable cellular IoT connectivity demands 'owning' connectivity

What’s the most reliable wireless technology you use? Most people I speak to say it’s cellular. That’s not to say cellular is 100% reliable. But it’s as near today to a “gold standard” in wireless engineering (with timely patches and updates, of course).

In fact, blanketed with decent 4G coverage and an unlimited smartphone data plan, you could switch Wi-Fi off altogether. You just wouldn’t need it. Cellular would be more reliable, more secure and often just as fast.

Complicating the issue

Now, may I ask you to consider what’s the most technically complex wireless technology you’ve ever used?

You may find that one harder to answer as an end user. But the answer is again cellular. No wireless technology comes close to its complexity at the physical and application layers.

So, how is it possible that a wireless technology that is so complex can also be made so reliable? The answer is something anyone in the market for a cellular IoT system needs to consider very carefully.

What makes cellular so reliable?

If I had to summarize it in one word, I would say “ownership.” Most cellular base stations and network infrastructure are built and maintained by just one of a handful of vendors worldwide. (The biggest three being Ericsson, Nokia and Huawei.) These make it their business to “own” every component that impacts performance, including above all else the wireless connectivity.

If they don’t design a component, they make it their business to know everything about that component. So much so that they might as well have designed it themselves.

And on the smartphone side of the connectivity link, the same is also true. Again, a handful of vendors make it their business to understand every component and system that impacts their device’s performance as if they had designed it themselves. And when they have built their systems, they test them to destruction, and make continuous finely tuned performance improvements throughout the product lifecycle.

Where theory collides with reality

This ownership control over every aspect of a device’s performance is the key to reliability not just in cellular, but in any wireless application. It’s the difference between theory — if a piece of off-the-shelf software or hardware intellectual property (IP) conforms to a standard, it can be combined in modular chunks and will work perfectly — and reality — unforeseen factors that can impact wireless performance at the implementation stage are numerous, so conforming to a standard only encourages seamless connectivity, it certainly doesn’t guarantee it.

As a former Chair of the Bluetooth SIG and now CTO for Nordic Semiconductor, which provides wireless semiconductors, I know only too well that even with a solid, universally agreed upon and vetted open standard underpinning a wireless technology, there are numerous subtle differences. Differences in the way different device vendors can legitimately implement that standard — “flavor” if you like — that can all throw-up previously unforeseen and indeed unknowable interoperability problems.

The problem is that all wireless connectivity relies on successfully connecting to another party’s device. In Bluetooth, that’s smartphones and PCs. In cellular, and that now includes cellular IoT, it’s base stations. If products using wireless technologies can’t connect reliably and transfer your data, for whatever reason, it’s game over. Your product is doomed for poor reviews and subsequent lackluster sales.

It might not be a simple fix either

The truth is wireless technology can sometimes run into problems that can be very difficult to find and fix. The best chance you’ve got — both now and in the future — is to be able to test and adjust every single technical parameter that could affect wireless performance at any level of the application, in both the software and hardware.

The problem is that this kind of control doesn’t come cheap. It requires designing and building the required connectivity technologies in-house — from the radio to the protocol stack to the hardware — instead of just buying-in bits and pieces of modular, low-cost, off-the-shelf IP.

The moral of the story

Put simply, when embarking on a cellular IoT project, the more multivendor IP there is between your application and the base station, the greater the likelihood of problems down the line. And the less will be your ability to fix them.

To guarantee reliable, mass-market, cellular IoT connectivity, you have to make sure you “own” (have control over) everything between your application and the base station. Otherwise you risk — sooner or later — some part of your cellular IoT’s wireless link not working right. Not only is that going to be a real pain in the ass for your end customers, it could also be almost impossible for you to fix when they come to you demanding a solution.

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.

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