January 28, 2016

The most economic way of connecting a billion devices

TeppoH-8391I believe that business systems and models work best if they are kept simple and optimized rather than made complicated. Therefore, simplicity should be a key goal in design and unnecessary complexity should be avoided. This applies also to device connectivity in Internet of Things (IoT) applications. I will argue in this blog that the combination of the cellular and de-centralized mesh network offers the most cost efficient and optimized connectivity for large-scale IoT applications.

The diversity of IoT applications and their requirements introduces a paradigm shift for connectivity solutions. The ability to flexibly optimize the connectivity solution to the needs of the customer’s business case and application is crucial to the development and growth of IoT based business.

The requirements for connectivity vary considerably between different IoT applications such as smart metering, sensoring, logistics and lighting for example. Because the use cases vary so much, one connectivity solution does not fit for all. Moreover, the requirements evolve over time per application. In fact in many cases, if the connectivity solution is not optimized for the application in terms of power, bandwidth, range, latency etc., the underlying business case does not apply anymore.

Let’s start from the mobile cellular technology that is based on infrastructure that is one of the biggest engineering investments on this planet. It is not fully complete in coverage, but has by far the best reach globally. As all large-scale infrastructures it comes with a cost. Using cellular to connect for example a million smart meters for 15 years is out of question – economically. Another problem is that cellular lacks deep indoor or basement coverage which is often required in IoT applications.

Another technology that is widely used to connect devices is Bluetooth. It is a technology for which you don’t need to build any infrastructure apart from the devices themselves. It has no subscription or recurring fees. It is however mainly limited to point to point or star topology. It lacks scalability and options for power, range, throughput and latency trade-offs and as such is not optimized for many large-scale IoT applications. It does however work very well in many IoT applications in consumer electronics.

Then there are several different Low Power Wireless Area Networks (LPWAN). To be honest, I struggle to understand the feasibility of LPWAN economically and functionally. If you build the coverage and capacity for millions of devices in a city for example, the cost of the infrastructure approaches cellular. It also doesn’t enable too much of configuring per application. LPWAN says one solution fits all – and I don’t buy that.

I have been pointing out some strengths and weaknesses of existing connectivity solutions. What then should be the solution?

As I stated in the beginning, I believe that the combination of cellular and de-centralized mesh network offers the most cost efficient and optimized connectivity for large-scale IoT applications.

Our proposal is an autonomous device network that is built with de-centralized mesh technology that has deterministic performance at any scale. It can be run on any band or radio, but most economic ones are the non-licensed spectrums (like 2.4 GHz, Sub-GHz). It can have up to thousands devices per gateway and it doesn’t need any additional infrastructure as every device can route and extend the network. Moreover, by multi-hopping it guarantees coverage that can’t be matched with cellular or tree topologies without a massive investment.

For connecting the devices and delivering the data to customers back-end system, there are basically a few options: You can build a gateway using the existing cellular or WiFi network or use direct Ethernet connection. Cellular is just obvious for large geographical setups.

As a result, even large-scale systems can be built with an investment that doesn’t ruin the underlying business case. The operating expenditure for connectivity is up to one thousandth of cellular, but still supported basically everywhere in the world.

When talking about cost there is one thing that is often overlooked. That is the installation and maintenance work in the field. On top of initial investment (CAPEX) this is what makes the difference between solid business case and IoT fantasy. In real autonomous mesh networks, there is hardly any network related field work and even if there is, it can be quickly managed by the field engineer himself.

In nature things organize themselves in the most efficient, optimized and simple way. The things are communicating making autonomous decision based on the de-centralized protocol that is optimized to fulfill the need as efficiently as possible – nothing more, nothing less. This is what we believe in and aim for. Things connected – Naturally.

– Teppo Hemiä, CEO of Wirepas –

P.S. The February Wirepas blog will discuss another hot topic within IoT, the trust.