This year, there is an outlook for significant advances in cellular IoT, with a host of new designs coming to market.
Cellular IoT in both its LTE-M and NB-IoT flavors took longer than competing proprietary Local Wide Area (LWA) network technologies to come to market. As a direct result of this, they lost a lot of early market share.
Making things smart saves money in terms of operational and maintenance costs and boosts productivity. Some businesses and organizations were understandably unwilling to wait.
But cellular IoT’s later arrival did mean it came to market fully formed in terms of offering the same levels of reliability and security that conventional cellular wireless tech and mobile phone users have benefited from for decades.
The only thing cellular IoT was lacking was global ubiquity in terms of coverage due to the roll-out speed of networks by operators. But this 'roadblock' has now been completely removed, with operators rolling out networks across the globe with the same country-wide coverage as their mobile phone networks.
At the time of writing, it’s fair to say just about the entire developed world, and an ever-increasing proportion of the developing world, now offers ubiquitous NB-IoT and/or LTE-M coverage (GSM). Seeing major operators taking the step to offer both NB-IoT and LTE-M on an equal scale across the network is another big step. Clearly, both NB-IoT and LTE-M have their key benefits and use cases. However, many devices also want both to take advantage of the combined benefits. From Nordic’s perspective, this has significantly impacted design win activity.
We are seeing many established proprietary WAN solutions in markets such as smart cities (for example, smart utility metering and smart street lighting) now starting to 'convert' over to cellular IoT. This will often be done by launching a new product into a previously propriety WAN-only stable of product offerings based on cellular wireless technology instead. And now that ‘all the horses are in the race’, it will be interesting to see which ones emerge as the frontrunners.
For example, at CES this January, the field application engineers staffing the Nordic booth said that around half of all visitors asked to see Nordic’s cellular IoT global asset tracking demo. This used the multi-mode NB-IoT/LTE-M Nordic nRF9160 System-in-Package (SiP) based Nordic Thingy:91 with Nordic’s nRF Cloud Location Services to provide 'out-of-the-box' locationing anywhere in the world with coverage. And uniquely, the demo showed how this locationing was fast and customizable depending on the level of power efficiency required versus location accuracy. (This is achieved using various single, multi-cell, Assisted- and Predictive-GPS locationing options.)
At MWC 2022, it was further evident that a large ecosystem sees the opportunity to create very optimized solutions for low-power devices like the nRF9160. A few examples are battery-free designs using energy harvesting, lean low power protocols to the cloud, and machine learning on the edge to save data cost.
Yes, this is somewhat anecdotal evidence of cellular IoT’s growing popularity. But it does reflect a fundamental shift: the ability to track and monitor anything worldwide in a commercially and technologically viable way. Very quickly and simply too, when compared to even the recent past. That's a significant change. And it's just the start in terms of what both cellular IoT wireless technology and Nordic’s Cloud Services will be capable of achieving.
Another trend we are seeing is the increasing tendency to combine different wireless IoT technologies with a single application. There are a lot of hybrid cellular IoT and Bluetooth LE combinations, for example, but we don't expect this 'hybridization’ trend to stop there.
The fundamental driver here is why such a proliferation of wireless IoT technologies exists in the first place: because no one wireless technology perfectly suits all use cases.
And hybrid approaches are a natural reflection of this fact. In some use cases, combining two wireless technologies enables developers to achieve a result that is technically and/or commercially superior to either wireless technology when used standalone. In fact, hybrid wireless IoT applications should become very common.
One final thing worth noting here in the interests of full disclosure is the impact of the global semiconductor shortage.
Nordic has always prided itself on providing highly integrated solutions that minimize the physical space they occupy (Nordic’s technology was fundamental to the birth of wearables) and the number of external supporting components required.
The nRF9160 SiP is no exception. In particular, this includes integrating an onboard 64 MHz Arm Cortex-M33 processor and GPS support. To make the nRF9160 SiP work, a developer just needs a pair of antennas (GPS and LTE), a battery, a SIM card or eSIM (for which Nordic has established partnerships that couldn’t make this any simpler), and whatever set of sensors a product or application requires.
The flipside of all this is that the nRF9160 requires a minimal number of supporting semiconductor components compared to competing solutions (aside from its generous onboard 1 MB Flash and 256 KB RAM memory and class-leading power consumption).
The nRF9160 SiP is the only multi-mode LTE-M/NB-IoT cellular IoT solution on the market that has its own onboard processor inside available for all through an open software development kit. That means one major, critical component less to source on the Bill of Material (BoM).
Moreover, the global chip shortage has spurred a complete re-think in electronics design from overly cost-heavy considerations to much more highly integrated and ‘smart’ alternatives that minimize supply-chain risk. This shift is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.
This article was first published on Nordic's Get Connected Blog.