How to create a successful ecosystem for your IoT project? Episode 4 - Choosing the right wireless communication modules
How to create a successful ecosystem for your IoT project? Episode 4 - Choosing the right wireless communication modules
As IoT gathers momentum and billions more devices are connected, the complexity of choosing the right technology to provide optimal performance today and an upgrade path for the future has never been more challenging.
In this fourth article of our series realized in partnership with established experts from the IoT world, Alexander Bufalino, VP Marketing, at Quectel Wireless Solutions explains how to navigate the issues and select the right technologies and partners for the long-haul.
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Alexander, as a starter for ten, can you explain Quectel’s mission in a few words?
Quectel provides a hand to guide companies through the complexities of IoT connectivity.
At Quectel Wireless Solutions, our mission is to build a smarter world. Although we are the market leader in providing wireless communication modules, our focus is not only on selling modules, we want to create solutions that enable new applications, business cases and experiences with the goal of improving the world for everyone. Our founder and CEO, Patrick Qian naturally drives the company’s growth as a priority but places great emphasis on our participation in innovative programs and initiatives that improve quality of life, develop new ways of doing things and have reduced environmental impact.
Central to Quectel’s approach is that we don’t just sell our modules. We provide services that include wireless communication modules, Internet of Things (IoT) solutions and our cloud platform, which means we can connect people and things together. That’s really our value proposition, the outcome of connection and communication.
Quectel specializes in the design, production, R&D and sales of wireless communication modules and solutions for application across IoT. This means we have a portfolio of products that addresses all communication technologies from cellular to satellite plus the complete range of support services to ensure our customers can deploy our products smoothly and integrate them into their solutions, receiving optimum performance and achieving their business outcomes.
Quectel solutions are for everyone, so we are ready to listen, advise and co-operate with technical people such as engineers and device designers as well as business people. Customers range from senior management to junior engineers and even hobbyists and we are ready to help them all regardless of their position. Obviously, the larger the deployment and the more complex its demands the more help we are able to provide to ensure an optimized solution.
What is at stake when an IoT developer/designer chooses a communication module? Why is this important for the success of the project?
IoT is maturing.
Our extensive market knowledge, both of communication modules and the use cases they are deployed in, is an important resource for customers who are increasingly engaged in highly challenging projects. The stakes for our customers are getting higher and higher as IoT deployments have moved out of the testing phase into large-scale, real-life commercial, high volume roll-outs.
Getting it wrong at the development and design stage has huge impacts on factors such as power consumption, connectivity throughput, operational cost and device performance. This can truly make or break an IoT service so the decision-making process is highly rigorous. We see our role as rising to the challenge of that to provide developers and engineers with all the information they need about the performance and attributes of our communications modules.
Don’t forget the communication module plays arguably the most important and central role in an IoT project because, without the ability to send data to the cloud, there can be no success. Without the connection, the data cannot be utilized and the desired result cannot be achieved. Connectivity is fundamental to IoT, so getting connectivity choices wrong can have a massive impact on IoT success or failure.
What process do you apply to select the right communication module?
Quectel takes a listening approach. We want to fully understand what our customers need, gathering all their requirements so we can choose the best module for their deployment. Typically, this is based on a complex equation in which we balance needs for connectivity performance with power consumption, cost, form factor, deployment location, regulation and security requirements.
For instance, a customer might want to develop a lower cost device for global deployment. That immediately precludes selection of a 5G module on the grounds that there is no global availability and the module cost is too high for lower value use cases. We’ll then look at the communications capacity they require and identify in the cellular market whether LTE Cat-1 or narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) can meet their needs. It might be either one of them that is more appropriate —with Cat-1 providing greater throughput and near-ubiquitous global coverage or NB-IoT being more cost effective.
We’ll also consider the individual deployment characteristics of each application. For example, smart meters are often located in hard-to-reach indoor locations so, a strong indoor signal capability is a requirement. Other applications, such as asset tracking, place greater priority on global network availability, while sensitive applications such as assisted driving rely on the low latency of LTE-Advanced and 5G to ensure life-threatening decisions and inputs can be made in near real-time.
What are the most common pitfalls that you encounter and could these lead to the failure of the project?
Every deployment is different and this is the challenge and attraction of working in this market for Quectel.
In terms of problematic situations that we typically encounter, certification and globalization are the main issues in addition to the basic module selection criteria outlined above. Different mobile networks across the world have different certification requirements for devices to be used on their networks and customers need to ensure they use certified modules. If not, they could experience delays while the device is certified for use on a network.
Certification can be mandated by a regulator such as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the US or by an operator such as AT&T or Verizon. Going through the certification process is unavoidable for new device types and this is a complex and demanding situation that can be very time-consuming and take customers into unfamiliar areas. For example, some customers have no experience of designing antennas and the radio frequency (RF) aspects of device design.
However, to achieve certification they must meet the requirements of the certifying organization so this expertise is an area in which Quectel is able to assist customers. We also have our own range of antennas, which have been designed to simplify this aspect of deployment. Certification remains one of the more complex and time-consuming aspects of device deployment and it is required multiple times in order for a device to be launched.
Customers often need to achieve certification not only for a market but for each carrier they want to use within that market. In the US, for example, customers might need T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon certification in order to ensure excellent nationwide coverage at all the locations a device might be deployed. This should not come as a surprise and should be factored into the device development and timescale from the very beginning.
If you had to give 3 pieces of advice to someone choosing a communication module, what would they be?
The complexity and number of parts that have influence on each other makes the communications module selection one of the most important aspects of device development and go to market. It therefore should be prioritized and given the appropriate level of attention. We therefore advise three key steps:
- Choose the right technology for your project or product.
This may sound obvious but there is a lot that people can get wrong. Make sure you fully understand the needs of your product so you can select the most appropriate connectivity technology. Today, there are many different options on the market so take the time to find the right one for your situation. Don’t forget to think ahead – if your devices will be deployed for ten or more years, like smart meters for example – about what upgrades will be required during that period and identify if over-the-air upgrade of the module is possible.
This activity alone could substantially reduce operational cost and extend the lifetime of the device. In addition, some technologies, notably 2G cellular, are already being discontinued in some markets so ensure the technology you select will still be available in the future. We therefore advocate careful technology selection based on performance, longevity and operational cost.
- Take regional differences into account.
For global or even regional deployments there are technological differences that must be considered. Different regions and nations often allocate different spectrum bands to cellular networks and this requires different modules to ensure connectivity in each GSM band. Therefore, assess which markets a device is likely to be utilized in, not just for today but in the future as well.
Quectel has a lot of experience in global deployments so we can help customers with this knowledge so they can design their devices for the global market. We keep things simple by designing modules for different GSM bands that have the same characteristics such as form factor and power consumption so developers can standardise devices as much as possible while still retaining adaptability for global markets.
- Ensure the module and end device passes final certification.
As mentioned above, certification can be a real show-stopper so don’t neglect it. Often we see certification put to one side and only considered as the service nears launch. Carriers have lengthy certification processes and these cannot be accelerated so make certification a priority. Understand what markets you need to access their networks in and get the process underway early.
These three recommendations address common device selection challenges but this a complex landscape and each situation has individual and unique requirements and dependencies. This is why Quectel is far more than a module vendor. We provide a comprehensive portfolio of additional services including our antennas design services to ensure all antenna aspects are optimized. We also offer review schematics so customers can fully understand the performance of their device. In addition we offer test services to measure factors such as audio quality, radio frequency performance and reliability.
Is there anything else our readers should be mindful of that we haven’t mentioned yet?
Technology selection is a common area in which companies get things wrong. There’s always a temptation to specify the highest performing technology or to go for the cheapest solution available. Either of these approaches can destroy a business case.
Specifying more performance than you need can cause unnecessary additional costs that ruin profitability while the cheapest solution might allow no flexibility for future development or have poor coverage in some markets. It’s therefore vital to choose the most appropriate technology both for your immediate needs and likely future needs of the service or product.
It’s also important to select the right supplier. Many technology companies offer communication modules with varying levels of support and expertise but, by choosing a module specialist which is an expert in cellular modules you can be assured of high quality and productivity modules. Quectel, for example, ensures that all of our modules will work and provide connectivity in every part of the globe.
The provider you choose needs to understand the advantages and disadvantages of different communication protocols and technologies and have the knowledge to help you choose the right option that fits your product or project the best. They need to understand if you want to use licensed or unlicensed bands. They need to ask what the maximum size of data you want to send is, which protocol you want to use, what security of data you require, how often you will communicate and the latency you need and whether the device will be powered by a battery or a power adapter.
Using this information, they will zero-in on the ideal module for your use. I believe that a module vendor should not only provide high quality modules but also the technical support and the services customers need to help design their boards. I also believe a vendor should be able to help in the certification process.
One last question Alexander, do you see any trends in your market that you’d like to tell us about?
Although it’s clear that IoT adoption hasn’t hit the previously projected tens of billions of connections by 2020, momentum is underway towards several billion connections. Even though the COVID-19 pandemic may have caused a temporary slow-down in adoption in 2020, deployments are poised to accelerate and many capabilities of IoT will see more rapid adoption because of the pandemic, which has stimulated adoption of cloud and communications technologies in general.
There are a series of new functionalities ready to go mainstream and these include services such as assisted driving which will ultimately lead to autonomous driving. Trials are ongoing in many markets across the globe and will rely on newer network technologies such as 5G. We’re also seeing increased adoption of eMobility and ride sharing which will utilise cellular modules augmented by GPS/GNSS as there could be multiple constellations utilized to enable highly accurate vehicle location and tracking.
In logistics, we will increasingly see complex supply chains rely on connectivity down to the individual container, pallet or parcel level. This will necessitate ultra-low cost, near-disposable solutions powered by lower bandwidth technologies such as NB-IoT or other low power wide area networks (LPWAN). We also expect to see mid-range technologies enabling social initiatives such as connected devices for educating children. A technology such as LTE-M will be sufficient for this and this is the type of project that really enthuses Quectel as we can really enable new possibilities for society.
Over the coming few years we foresee even greater adoption of the following network technologies as different applications access the most appropriate connectivity for their use cases:
- LTE CAT-1
An increasing percentage of the IoT industry is looking for an all-in-one solution that provides excellent, reliable and secure coverage while also delivering cost advantages, optimal tariffs and global coverage that enables roaming and voice capabilities. LTE Category 1 (LTE Cat-1, or just CAT-1) brings together all of these attributes and this makes it an indispensable connectivity technology for IoT. One size doesn’t necessarily fit all but many applications have similar requirements and CAT-1 attributes are proving popular. Analyst Firm, Berg Insight, for example, has estimated that 28 million CAT-1 modules were sold in 2018 and has forecast that module shipments in 2020 will exceed 55 million units worldwide. ABI Research forecasts that shipments will continue to grow and will exceed 212 million pieces in 2023.
The consumer market hype affects IoT market realism but 5G IoT deployments are happening. The GSA’s Market Snapshot of August 2020 reports that there are now 92 commercial 5G networks operating in 38 countries demonstrating that there is now a large significant base of markets that have 5G coverage available for industries to exploit. In addition, more are set to roll-out 5G shortly, with 392 operators in 126 countries having announced they are investing in 5G at the end of July 2020.
Many established IoT applications don’t have requirements for the capabilities of 5G or simply don’t have business cases that can justify its cost. For many IoT applications, the bandwidth offered by low power wide area networks (LPWAN), 3G and 4G/LTE is abundantly sufficient for their data transmission needs. However, with 2G cellular networks being retired and the substitution of 2G with NB-IoT becoming massive around the globe, the opportunity for 5G IoT is starting to crystallize. 5G’s core benefits of high speed, low latency and connection density are well-known and, in essence, enable a paradigm shift in performance compared to alternatives.
Narrowband-IoT is a standards-based low power wide area (LPWA) technology developed to enable a wide range of new IoT devices and services. NB-IoT significantly improves the power consumption of user devices, system capacity and spectrum efficiency, especially for indoor coverage. Battery life of more than ten years is a feature that makes this technology particularly attractive.
The extended coverage and ultra-low device complexity of NB-IoT and the fact that initial cost of the NB-IoT modules is expected to be comparable to GSM/GPRS are further advantages. In addition, the underlying technology is however much simpler than GSM or GPRS and NB-IoT cost is expected to decrease rapidly as demand increases, opening up new market opportunities.