Get Smart: Private Wireless Becomes Key in Growing IoT

Forty years ago, this reporter for a Phoenix suburban daily newspaper, wrote a story on what was called a “smart home.” Everything from the way the house was built to maximize the sun for natural lighting to appliances being controlled by programming such things as timers off a home computer made the building seem futuristic.

It’s been a long time since then, and with current “smart” options, those first attempts look quaint. Today, thanks to information technology advancements and the Internet of Things (IoT), we are looking at smart homes, warehouses, manufacturing, airport security and even whole towns and cities – without MS-DOS.

Today is much different. As Digital Global Systems (DGS) Chief Technology Officer Dr. Armando Montalvo says, “Today’s industrial applications, business success, and, ultimately, the economy at large, rely on consistent and reliable access to IoT sensors.”

Sensors are the foundation of an IoT ecosystem. They are the hardware that detects changes in an environment and collects data used to bridge the digital world to the physical world. IoT sensors may detect everything from temperature, pressure, and motion, and if they are connected to a network, they share data with the network.

IoT for smart factories and warehouses, smart cities and other industries use private wireless networks to handle the growing number of low-power, wireless sensors. This is why channel partners may want to sell them or at least explore the opportunities.

Game changer

Private wireless networking became a reality recently for U.S.-based enterprises when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) conducted auctions for spectrum that enables private wireless. A game changer in this area was the use of Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) because it opens a shared wireless spectrum to the public.

According to the Dell’Oro Group, private wireless networking will reach between $800 million and $1 billion by 2026, which matches the three-year exponential growth timeline that Montalvo said IoT is following.

Private wireless networks provide the same wireless broadband connectivity as public wireless networks and require the same components:

  • licensed or unlicensed spectrum
  • a network core
  • a base station
  • radios and antennas
  • a form of connectivity to enable the network, like LTE or 5G.

However, for IoT to work efficiently on a wireless network, some hurdles must be jumped first.

For example, suppose a wireless network requests access to a congested channel. When this happens, the IoT sensors work harder to relay even small amounts of data, reducing their battery life and potentially preventing critical data from being delivered, Montalvo explained.

This is why partners selling private wireless networks or who have entered the emerging IoT space may want to understand the issue to explain and represent it to their clients better.

When sensors fail to connect in these environments, products can spoil, machinery can overheat or be damaged, business operations can be affected and working conditions can become unsafe.

Efficient operations

Reliability of the sensors is key for smooth operations, Montalvo said. This requires some forethought on where and how to place the sensors, so they can gather and transmit the data most efficiently. He also recommended taking a “worst case” approach at this stage.

Another consideration to make everything run at the optimum level is the operation has to fit with the wireless protocol. Is it 5G? LTE? 4G?

Montalvo cautions the protocol may not always be the way of using your power resources.

IoT depends on low-cost, efficient, and reliable telecom network access. However, Montalvo points out that today’s wireless networks were built for voice, data and text, but certainly not at the data consumption level IoT needs to operate efficiently.

In fact, data from the IoT sensors strain the already saturated wireless spectrum.

Montalvo, who has been active in the U.S. national public sector committees overseeing spectrum policy as a member of subcommittees for the FCC, the National Telecommunications and Information Agency, the National Spectrum Consortium and the U.S. Department of Defense, suggests network congestion from managing the growing number of wireless IoT sensors in a smart factory or warehouse creates a need for these devices to work harder with repeated requests.

He said IoT’s demands on wireless networks differ greatly from traditional carrier services that need to support data-hungry services like streaming media or mobile video chat.

When it comes to IoT applications for business, industry and public services, a network’s reliability, security, reach, and capacity to handle the number of connected devices are major factors for ensuring critical applications, services, and technologies perform without fail.

“Private wireless networks are the first venue where similar issues confronting IoT services in a public wireless network will manifest in scale, especially while servicing verticals with a large number of sensors and devices transmitting short bursty information with disparate reliability, latency, security, and density requirements per network access point (base station, microcell, femtocell, etc.),” he said.

“In such verticals (such as production factories, smart cities, distribution and logistics warehousing), the problem of optimizing the network resources to support a variety of signals with different service requirements is integral to a solution that can be applied to supporting a variety of IoT devices and services in the public wireless network,” Montalvo added.

Finding the sweet spot

Shared spectrum offers the most effective option for keeping critical IoT applications operating. But there’s a catch: spectrum is finite and limited within the sweet spot between 800 MHz and 6 GHz.

Montalvo said that if you go to higher frequencies, there is a need for more nodes and additional costs. “Wireless spectrum in this sweet spot is intensely saturated, increasing the demand to expand shared spectrum with future allocations to maximize utilization of high-quality spectrum at all times.”

That’s where the regulatory agencies need to step in. “Current and future services, such as IoT, virtual reality, connected cars, smart cities, and nearly infinite other categories, demand access to wireless spectrum. And the number of possible services will continue to grow, putting even more stress on the spectrum,” Montalvo explained.

“As the FCC considers new allocations for spectrum sharing, it must strongly consider how pending spectrum policy decisions will impact technological innovation in the United States,” he said.

Because data are the lifeblood of our economy, he said spectrum policy – specifically shared spectrum – is key to ensuring the country evolves at the forefront of a global technological revolution.

Since multiple signals exist in the environment, Montalvo suggested one might want to have devices set for different error rates and latencies.

“There are different requirements than the conventional requirements, so you need to understand what other environments will support those requirements so the IoT can be safely connected and satisfy the mission the service is trying to provide,” Montalvo explained.

Adding that when connecting for large-scale industry and commercial users, private wireless networks using simple shared spectrum approaches like CBRS offer greater security and better network infrastructure for the applications.

Shared spectrum also has the potential to optimize beyond the capabilities of CBRS to deliver more robust services by leveraging dynamic management technologies that can achieve greater reliability for organizations – both private wireless networks and carrier networks – that tap into the unlicensed spectrum to augment their cellular services.

Looking ahead

Montalvo said regulatory bodies such as the FCC and the NTIA have been exploring how to increase the use of spectrum, including spectrum slicing to allow more capacity without interference.

He said the FCC must not turn back the clock and be content with a “legacy model of auctioning exclusive rights to spectrum bands.” Instead, he encourages policymakers and regulators to make wireless spectrum accessible, affordable and efficient to accelerate technological development for every business as soon as possible.

In an article he wrote earlier, Montalvo stated, “There is no question in my mind that shared spectrum is the inevitable model for spectrum use and management in the future. The question is whether we want to lead and gain a competitive advantage or let American business and industry continue with the status quo, pretending that this won’t hurt them.”