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M2M Implications of the 4G LTE Buildout

M2M Implications of the 4G LTE Buildout

| 6/18/2013 10:00:00 AM

As data communications continue to evolve they continue to present us with new capabilities and new opportunities.  And, quite often, it doesn’t take long before we can’t remember how we ever got along without them. Back in its low-speed infancy, for example, the Internet was largely just an email service that connected various universities and research centers. If you didn’t have it, you didn’t miss it. That changed as the technology got better, cheaper and easier to use. Nowadays it would be hard to imagine trying to function without email – or streaming video, online shopping and Wikipedia.  Many Internet services become indispensable almost as soon as they become available.

We’ll see more of that kind of thing as the 4G LTE cellular network expands to include the entire industrialized world. Just as increased modem speeds gave birth to Amazon.com and Ebay, 4G LTE’s low latency and massive throughputs of up to 1 GB/s will open the door to new machine-to-machine (M2M) monitoring and control applications.

Figure 1: Volcano monitoring

Figure 1.     

Cellular Networks are Already Changing the Way we View M2M Communications
In situations where monitoring a remote location with a wired network would be tricky, live volcanos spring to mind, cellular networks provide an alternative network connection for sensors like seismographs and GPS receivers. On the slopes of the notorious Eyjafjallaj√∂kull volcano in Iceland, which made a name for itself by shutting down European air travel back in 2010, the Icelandic Meteorological Office didn’t try to run cables out to their site. They would have been up against seismic activity, lava flows and ash fall.  Instead, they used the cellular network. Solar panels powered the sensors and the GPRS/EDGE cellular routers, and the routers (from B&B Electronics’ Czech Republic-based subsidiary, Conel) connected the devices to the network.  No long distance cabling was needed. (See Figure 1.)

Figure 2: Arizona Desert Monitoring

Figure 2.     

The 4G LTE network in North America is still under development, but we’re already doing some interesting M2M networking using the 3G cellular network. For example, I’m currently working on a project in the Arizona Desert that points towards the future of cellular M2M. I’ve installed a water well monitoring system out in the middle of nowhere that gives me access to the sensor data and a live video stream from a security camera – from anywhere I can establish an Ethernet connection, anywhere on the planet. My remote monitoring system (see Fig 2) involves a holding tank, a pressure tank, and numerous pumps, including an underground well pump that supplies the holding tank, which would cost a small fortune to replace, and is probably the piece that needs to be monitored the most carefully.  I’ve networked a variety of different protocols, as the various sensors that monitor the pumps and tanks communicate via everything from Modbus to Ethernet.  I use 2.4 GHz radios to send the sensor data to a 3G cellular router, and I use Ethernet cable to connect the security camera directly to the router.  The  cellular router serves as my Ethernet backbone.

Note that the system combines new technologies with older ones.  Cellular routers are a fairly new idea, but some of the Modbus sensors use technology and protocols that have their origins way back in the 1960s.  But once I got everything talking to everything else, the 3G cellular network gave me ample speed and bandwidth for the tasks at hand.

What Will Happen When we have 4G LTE Capabilities at our Disposal? 

There will be an amazing increase in available bandwidth, of course. The more subtle improvement lies in 4G LTE’s reduced latency: something like 30 milliseconds.

With its virtually unlimited range, and with speeds that rival fiber optics, 4G LTE will serve as a true cable replacement.  And its low latency will open the door to true supervisory control as well.  We’ll be able to interact with remote devices in new ways.  Just as improved Internet led to new services and new devices, like tablets that stream video, 4G LTE’s enhanced capabilities will inevitably produce another explosion of innovation. We’ll see new sensors and new devices that can take advantage of 4G LTE’s throughput and low latency, along with new software that can interpret and manage the massive quantities of data that 4G LTE will be able to provide.

While it’s too soon to know what all of these new devices and services will be, I’ll boldly make one small prediction:  It won’t be long before we can’t remember how we ever got along without them.

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