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LTE-M, NB-IoT, LoRaWAN, SigFox, Bluetooth Low Energy, 4G, 5G… the range of IoT connectivity has blossomed these past few years. How do they work? Which ones are relevant for your air quality sensors and measurement projects? 

Alexandre Hucher is Technology Director at Ecomesure. He has a proven expertise around this topic and a 360° view of the solutions and projects that have been implemented at Ecomesure’s customers. In this file, he shares insight on how to make the right choice of IoT connectivity

Internet Of Things (IoT) and connectivity: what is it all about?

What is behind this concept of IoT connectivity? How does it apply to the fiels of air quality measurement?

« IoT connectivity describes the underlying process which enables data collected from a device to navigate through the Internet. This interaction relies on IoT networks, also called IoT protocols

IoT connectivity applies to a wide range of domains such as security, logistics, smart buildings or health. It is essential to our field: the full value of air quality data collected through our monitors is only captured after being processed into visual analytics web solutions such as EcomSaaS. IoT connectivity is the supporting process for transferring data from our sensors to these solutions. »

IoT Wide range of domains

What are the existing networks?

«  Wireless cellular networks (3G, 4G) and Wi-Fi are the most popular existing technologies. Bluetooth, which is used to connect several assets together, can also be leveraged to connect a device to the network. The development of IoT use cases has initially been supported by these default technologies, being the only available options to connect an asset to the Internet.

New networks have emerged over the past ten years. They have been specifically designed for IoT applications and are thereby able to serve various types of use cases. This is a paradigm shift: the technology is developed in order to meet the requirements of IoT use cases, not the other way around. The new landscape of IoT connectivity includes the NB-IoT (Narrowband IoT) and the LTE-M (Long-Term Evolution for Machines) networks which leverage existing 4G infrastructures, as well as LoRaWAN and Sigfox which are low data rate, low power and non-cellular protocols.

Each of these connectivity options has its own characteristics. This diversity supports the development of a wide range of IoT use cases and enables IoT devices providers to offer new, better tailored solutions to their customers’ needs.”

Different connectivity modes

Which type of IoT connectivity for air quality sensors?

What connectivity options do you offer at Ecomesure? Which ones are used by clients?

« We have designed very modular products. The associated benefit is that they can be configured to the desired connectivity. Our stations work with traditional 3G, 4G, Wi-Fi networks as well as LTE-M, NB-IoT and LoRaWAN.

The Wi-Fi and 4G are the most commonly used options across our customers. This is because these connectivity types have been there for a while, guaranteeing extensive network coverage and high-speed practically anywhere. It doesn’t curb innovation. New use cases are emerging around these longstanding communication modes. With Bluetooth Low Energy, for instance, our customers can reach out to other IoT devices connected to our stations, in order to process air quality data with other types of data (measurement of noise, wind and vibrations for example). »

What about the adoption of new IoT connectivity modes?

« There is growing demand and interest for these new networks, and for LTE-M and NB-IoT protocols in particular. They are designed for IoT applications which require lower data speed than traditional 4G or Wi-Fi, and thus offer better performance in terms of energy efficiency. For this reason, these protocols make a great fit for our air quality sensor use cases.

Our connected systems are amongst the most advanced monitors in the market : they measure a vast amount of environmental parameters, while some sensors only capture one. But even with this completeness, our stations have a data transmission rate which is thousands of times lower than a video captured by a security camera, which sends large amounts of data continuously (several Mo/s, compared to a few Ko/min sent at intervals for our stations). Our monitors can thus be fully supported by LTE-M or NB-IoT. Some of our customers are already using these networks.

LoRa is also gaining traction, but is mostly deployed through private networks with a particular setup.” (see below the use case at one of our clients).

How do you help customers select the right connectivity option?

« There is no one-size-fits-all connectivity approach. Choosing the right network depends on each specific project and its related context, objectives and constraints.

To support our customers in their choice, agility is essential. It might sound like a buzzword, but at Ecomesure, agility is truly at the cornerstone of our methodology and our culture. When I joined the company, I was astonished by how easily our products can be configured, and how they can work with every protocol. I was also impressed about the highly collaborative approach adopted by our teams with customers, doing everything they can to meet each of our client’s specific needs.

Ecomesure’s professional services build upon a fine understanding of customers' requirements and constraints, which is step one to advise our customers on their connectivity options."

In practice : looking at IoT connectivity choices made by Ecomesure's customers

What are the main elements they consider when making connectivity decisions?

« This decision is a mix of various parameters. We have summarized some of the most decisive ones in the table below. Those are technical criteria that all of our customers weigh into their decision:

Key criteria for IoT connectivity of air quality sensors

Other requirements are considered, more specifically related to the area where the project is being implemented.

Network coverage is one of them. Wi-Fi and 4G are longstanding technologies and guarantee global coverage, while coverage is still currently expanding for newer connectivity options. Public LoRa networks (as opposed to private networks) are being deployed globally by providers such as Vodafone, AT&T and Orange Business Services. They grow at various paces based on countries and geographical areas.

As a global provider of air quality monitors, we rely on an extended distribution network and their local representative to lead network diagnostics directly in the field and advise on local operator’s coverage in each geographical zone. These partnerships supplement our own field expertise. Together with our partners, we’ve been able to successfully deploy our LTE-M solutions in Dubaï, Romania or Canada. »

Are there additional project-specific criteria?

« Subscription fees to these networks are also considered. If dozens or hundreds of sensors need to be connected to a new public network, it can lead to an important extra charge. We advise our customers on the best-fit solutions based on a cost vs benefits analysis. LTE-M for instance is cheaper than 4G and is an adequate option to minimize costs in areas where the coverage is good.

The choice of IoT connectivity is also to be considered at the enterprise level. When other IoT projects are underway within the organization, awareness on existing, pilot or selected IoT protocols can definitely make the case for one option or the other.» 

Can you provide examples of new IoT connectivity choices that have been made by customers?

« Customers that are on-grid (connected to the utility grid) have different challenges than those who are off-grid and are relying on solar energy systems. For the second category, minimizing the energy consumption of solar panels in order to reduce their size is often a challenge. These customers can be interested in new connectivity options such as LTE-M or NB-IoT, which are more energy efficient than 4G. 

LTE-M also performs better in terms of data transmission duration and shifting from a radio antenna to another. This connectivity mode is a good fit for mobile use cases that we offer with our EcomTrek solution, which measures parameters on the go. The LTE-M network is used for instance to connect our mobile monitors installed on buses in Québec and on drones in Dubaï.

As for the LoRa technology, it is mostly deployed through private networks, especially by customers who already rely on privately held IoT infrastructures. The very low-power standards of LoRa public networks require functional adjustments on our solutions (including reducing the data transfer frequency), even though our monitors are rather low on data consumption. These limitations do not exist on private networks. In this case, LoRa powered stations combine optimized energy consumption with excellent radio range. »

In conclusion: why should one consider new connectivity option when their monitors work well on traditional networks?

« First, because they support an optimized use of our devices, with potential cost savings. Second, because they scale rapidly, and are becoming more and more reliable. With all this diversity in IoT connectivity options, technology is now designed to specifically support IoT use cases and their related requirements, not the other way around. We expect these technologies to scale up in the upcoming years. It’s moving fast! We’re already looking into long-term connectivity trends such as eSIM or 5G IoT. They give us a glimpse of how our monitoring solutions can be leveraged for more and more diverse and innovative application use cases. »

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