Understanding IoT Modules in 2018


IoT EnvironmentThe Internet of Things (IoT) is revolutionizing and improving the way we work and live but it's only possible with pervasive, flexible and long-lived wireless connectivity. At the heart of it all is a tiny device called the IoT Module that is responsible for connecting virtually anything to wireless networks. IoT Modules come with a wide range of wireless technology standards and they provide a variety of features that can impact the success of IoT applications. So, how do you select the right IoT Module for your solution? Let's begin with the basics…

What is an IoT module?

An IoT module is a small electronic device embedded in objects, machines and things that connect to wireless networks and sends and receives data. Sometimes referred to as a "radio chip", the IoT module contains the same technology and data circuits found in mobile phones but without features like a display or keypad. Another key differentiator of IoT modules is that they provide always on connectivity. This is because IoT applications need to send data automatically, in real time without someone hitting a send button. In addition, they are engineered for extreme durability and longevity and need to operate continuously for a decade or more to justify the business case and cost of the technology.

Why is durability so important in IoT modules?

Unlike consumer devices that are typically carried by the end user and used in controlled environments, IoT devices are often deployed in extreme environments and far flung locations like shipping containers or under seawater in harbor management solutions. IoT environments can be tremendously demanding with extreme temperatures, vibration and humidity. In addition, they're often in remote, hard to reach locations making it cost prohibitive to send a technician out for repairs. It's essential that IoT modules are ruggedized to provide reliable connectivity without service interruption, regardless of location or which wireless network is utilized.

Is there one wireless technology that is better for IoT applications?  It all depends on application needs. 

Design an IoT solution from scratch or connect with a pre-made solution?   

IoT solutions are built to meet unique customer needs and each use-case has specific requirements for connectivity. For instance, large-scale projects connecting tens of thousands of global endpoints are markedly different than those connecting only hundreds of devices. Large projects with complex infrastructures typically require bespoke connectivity solutions that meet specific needs and integrate IoT modules. However, smaller scale projects can leverage pre-designed and pre-certified IoT Terminals that provide plug and play connectivity saving time and development expense. Either way, the next consideration is determining the best wireless technology to meet your business goals.

Which wireless technology standard is best?

IoT modules and IoT terminals use a variety of wireless technologies to stay seamlessly and securely connected. These range from 5G, 4G and 3G cellular solutions for high bandwidth applications like connected cars, to Low-Power, Wide-Area (LPWAN) solutions such as MTC (Machine Type Communication), Bluetooth and LoRa used for intelligent road systems, smart city applications and enterprise applications. Selecting the IoT device with the best features, bandwidth and price point for each use case is an important step toward achieving business and revenue goals. The choices can seem daunting at first, but experienced OEMs and developers can help weed through connectivity considerations to find the best match for each use case.

And preparing yourself with little background knowledge is always a good idea…

When it comes to IoT modules, what’s with all the cats?

LTE Cat 1, LTE Cat M1, LTE Cat NB-IoT…what are all these cats? Short for “category”, they refer to new standards of Low Power Wide Area 4G wireless technology. Why do we need them? As we all know, cellular technology is constantly evolving, becoming faster, offering more bandwidth, supporting more connections and offering amazing new features. In just two decades, cellular technology has evolved from 2G to 3G to 4G and 5G is on the horizon. The problem is, most IoT solutions don’t need the sizzling speed and expansive bandwidth of 4G. It doesn’t make sense to pay for 4G when 2G capabilities are all that is needed. Unfortunately, 2G networks are no longer supported everywhere, and here’s where things get catty.  

The 3 C’s of Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWAN)

Did you know that many times a 4G mobile network can become an LPWAN network overnight with a simple software upgrade? Why would we want that? Because LPWAN can connect a vast sea of IoT objects, improving safety, efficiency and resource management by delivering on the 3C‘s of IoT applications:

  1. Cost: LPWAN is expected to cut more than 50% of cost compared to broadband LTE. Think 2G or even close to WiFi.
  2. Current: More than 100x lower power than broadband LTE achieving 10+ years of battery life due to specific power saving features like PSM, eDRX, which currently don’t exist in legacy LTE.
  3. Coverage: 5x greater coverage than broadband LTE in terms of gain, penetrating indoors and deep underground

New IoT modules based on optimized “categories” of LPWAN 4G cellular technologies (Cat 1, Cat M, Cat NB-IoT) drive significant cost savings, efficiency and device simplicity compared to broadband LTE. In other words, Cat 1, Cat M and Cat NB-IoT modules allow highly efficient use of the current LTE spectrum requiring far less power and delivering the connectivity necessary for most IoT applications. This includes smart city solutions, vehicle telematics, asset tracking, smart meters, retail terminals, industrial and agricultural monitors and more! In addition, LPWAN devices are much less complex allowing for cost-efficient design; and at the same time, they offer longer-range connectivity with deep indoor and underground coverage.  

What's the difference between Cat 1, Cat M and Cat NB-IoT?

Each cellular LPWA standard provides different features and capabilities:

  1. LTE Cat 1 IoT modules: provide data rates of 10Mbps uplink and 5Mbps downlink along with full voice, ability to support mobile applications and standard cellular connectivity.
  2. LTE Cat M IoT modules: provide uplink and downlink data rates of approx. 375kbps with restricted voice capabilities, limited ability to support mobility, enhanced coverage indoors and underground and improved power efficiency enabling a battery life of up to 10 years. 
  3. LTE Cat NB-IoT IoT modules: provide uplink and downlink data rates of approx. 50kbps without support for voice or mobility. It is designed for stationary IoT solutions like water and electricity meters. It provides extended coverage indoors and underground and enables battery life of 10 years and beyond.

The IoT module decision tree: selecting the right IoT module for any use case

IoT ModulesChoosing the right IoT module will ease development, speed up time to market and ultimately improve ROI. At the beginning of IoT solution design, careful consideration must be given to determine the necessary features and potential world regions where the solution will be. Features must be matched with a price point that makes sense for the business case.

For instance, to design a product that communicates small data bits over European wireless networks, a cost effective 2G or 3G GSM module should do the trick. However, the decision becomes more complex when you intend to introduce a product in one region and expand to other world regions over time. In some cases, like with large global track and trace solutions, a multi mode module that operates on all cellular networks – 2G, 3G, 4G and LTE advanced - could be needed. It might cost more initially; however, it simplifies solution design and logistics which lowers total cost of ownership in the end. In other cases, module footprint compatibility might be all that is needed to develop just a few regionally specific IoT solutions that leverage differing radio bands but only one solution design. In all cases, a smart migration path to next generation technologies can help ensure that a short-term gain in component price will not end up costing more down the road. The key is seamless evolution.

IoT modules and connectivity, the heart of the IoT ecosystem

Pervasive wireless networks, a wide variety of reliable, secure IoT modules and terminals and flexible eSIM and On Demand Connectivity solutions are the key components necessary to connect IoT solutions - the first step in realizing the technology’s limitless opportunities.
Gemalto simplifies the process of getting connected by offering all elements necessary for reliable connectivity. Our solutions are helping innovative industrial leaders push through traditional roadblocks and seize new opportunities to change our world for the better. For decades, Gemalto has been helping customers select the best IoT modules and connectivity solutions for each and every IoT use case. By delivering all components necessary for IoT connectivity – IoT modules, terminals, embedded systems, eSIMs, ODC and more - Gemalto helps simplify and speed the process of getting connected with confidence.  For more information or help selecting the right IoT module for your next project, don’t hesitate to contact a local representative.  


Last updated: 8 December

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