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4G / LTE for M2M?


For many design engineers the current focus of cellular network operators appears  to be entirely aimed toward demand creation and fulfilment in the mass consumer-orientated market which might  lead us to assume that future cellular technologies will continue down that same well-trodden path of increased data-rates and higher hardware prices; however, the truth is that we have reached a turning point with far more on the horizon which is M2M orientated than our short-lived history with cellular may lead us to expect.

For many in the industrial M2M design community any mention of ‘4G’ or ‘LTE’ has split opinion, based upon those initial experiences considering migration from 2G to 3G, namely cost, power consumption, network coverage or over-specification and whether perceived or real they are all contradictory to requirements in a market sector focussed on meeting other demands.

So what’s new?

The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) which unites telecommunications standard development organisations and produces the specifications that define 3GPP (cellular) technologies has released several standards focussed on M2M-specific requirements.

Firstly, LTE Cat 1 is the starting point on the roadmap of inter-operable technology standards focussed on meeting cellular M2M connectivity demands. LTE Cat 1 is aimed at reducing cost, power-consumption and complexity of M2M solutions while remaining compatible (i.e. can utilise) the existing 4G / LTE network.

LTE Cat 1 is very important for the US market where the trend is to migrate to newer, higher speed technologies and then quickly tear-down legacy ones. The 2G GPRS service will soon cease so for new designs needing to operate for the next decade or so, these newer standards cannot be rolled out fast enough. However the benefits in industrial applications are equally appealing around the globe and wireless module manufactures’ need to delivers solutions fast.

 

Gemalto are the first wireless module manufacturer to announce several LTE Cat 1 wireless modules (see press release here). Initially released to fulfil the North American market but we very quickly expect to see further variants in the near future. The key to both product and market success is ensuring customers can rapidly access the technology. Gemalto’s ELS31 Cat-1 device adopts their existing low-cost industrial footprint which spans 2G, 3G & now 4G LTE Cat1 and covers the global network requirements. Documentation is available here

 

Following LTE Cat 1 we can expect to see LTE Cat 0 following later, which promises to further reduce power-consumption, complexity and cost at the expense of data throughput. LTE Cat 0 will remain compatible with, and utile the existing 4G LTE network - that same network which promises to deliver to consumers ever increasing data-rates up to and beyond the 300MBit/Sec level.

Here is a quick review of the data-rates:-

 

Specification

Downlink

Uplink

LTE Cat 1

10 Mbit/Sec

5 Mbit/Sec

LTE Cat 0

1 Mbit/Sec

1 Mbit/Sec

LTE MTC

1 Mbit/Sec

1 Mbit/Sec

 
 
LTE MTC (Machine Type Connectivity)

Unlike the 3GPP Release 12 introductions (Cat 1, Cat 0) LTE MTC defines changes to the radio interface specification which allows for greater benefits and far wider adoption into new applications.

LTE MTC introduces significant benefits in terms of battery life, cost and coverage optimisations for applications that demand ubiquitous coverage, high reliability together with the robust security of 4G LTE Advanced, but without the high data rate requirements of ‘mobile broadband’ devices.

Despite updates, LTE MTC will still co-exist seamlessly with existing 4G LTE mobile broadband services, as part of 3GPP release 13.

Some of the key improvements are.

  • Significantly increased battery life. Unlike mobile broadband, M2M applications typically transfer small and infrequent packets of data. Many are also delay-tolerant. LTE MTC leverages this to introduce new enhanced power-save modes, longer sleep cycles, and more efficient signalling optimised for delivering far greater battery life. In a similar way, this is what Bluetooth Low Energy has achieved on the back of what is now ‘Bluetooth Classic’.
  • A new, simpler M2M device category. Machine-type communications do not often require the 20 MHz wideband operation of 4G LTE which can provide peak data rates of 300+ Mbps. LTE MTC reduces the cost and complexity of devices with ~1 MHz narrowband operation and reduced peak data rates less than 2 Mbps. So both the base-band and processing will see a significant relaxation in demands on the design and specification.
  • Enhanced coverage to reach the most challenging locations. LTE MTC introduces techniques to improve coverage for machines deployed in challenging locations such as inside buildings or underground. These techniques trade off speed and spectral efficiency for enhanced coverage, and can be configured on a per cell/User Device/channel basis.

There are further improvements and benefits which will be delivered by these new technologies once solutions come to market. Aside from the technology, for M2M in general there will be greater access to cellular based communications with the inherent security and deployment flexibility that is taken for granted today; More interestingly and key to driving the market further still, is that the cost of entry for new technologies will be lower than the earlier generations, and that is a real first!

For now though, we need to put historical experience to one side and embrace the new products of tomorrow (or today) which can change the way we think about 4G and in turn change the way we use cellular in our products and services in M2M.

 

Further Information and reading


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