LTE rollouts are happening faster than expected. According to the Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA), 96 operators worldwide had launched commercial LTE services as of September 2012, and 347 had committed to commercial network deployments or were engaged in trials or technology testing. By the end of 2012, GSA forecasts 152 commercial LTE networks operating in more than 50 countries. In effect, LTE has become the de facto standard for the next generation of cellular networks.
At the same time, machine-to-machine (M2M) communications are experiencing a surge in worldwide deployments. Just as LTE can unlock new, high-speed wireless applications, M2M can transform a wide range of industries by enabling remote communication with virtually any device—from cars to coffee makers, oil pipelines to insulin pumps. Yet only recently have people begun to ask how these two rapidly emergent market trends tie together and how the adoption of LTE in the M2M space can be advanced to maximum benefit.
High-performance connected devices are already benefiting from LTE innovations. For developers of lower-speed/lower-performance M2M applications, however, barriers that the industry must overcome before LTE becomes the cellular technology of choice remain. These include:
- Varying coverage: LTE rollouts are proceeding quickly, and there is no doubt that LTE will be deployed in large-scale national and regional networks worldwide. But as LTE is a new technology, the coverage today is still evolving—and it’s not currently as ubiquitous as 2G and 3G networks. The dynamic state of the LTE market also means that LTE coverage can vary greatly from region to region.
- Device cost: Another area of concern for OEMs developing lower-speed M2M applications is cost. Since LTE is still new, and since the technology is more complex than 2G (requiring support for more frequency bands and band combinations, more complex receiver configurations, and more sophisticated antennas), today’s LTE modules carry higher upfront costs than 2G technologies. Indeed, some OEMs building lower-speed M2M solutions may view the higher-cost components used in LTE prohibitive for their applications as currently constructed.
Some of these barriers will be overcome simply through the passage of time. For example, the cost of LTE modules and devices will go down, like all new technologies. Lack of LTE coverage in some areas will also be resolved as LTE deployments proceed around the globe. (Also, considering that many mobile network operators are deploying LTE at lower frequency bands, it’s feasible that LTE networks could ultimately provide better coverage than higher-frequency 3G services for indoor applications.)
Nonetheless, significant efforts are now under way by network operators, LTE technology providers, and standards-making bodies to make LTE more amenable to M2M applications of all varieties.
The inherent variation and spectrum flexibility of LTE mean that it will likely always be more complex than 2G systems. However, M2M technology providers are working to address these complexities to bring costs down for M2M deployments. For example, new tunable component technologies that allow modems and antennas to handle more and wider bands are being developed to address the wide variation seen in today’s LTE deployments. Ideally, this technology could eliminate the need for multiple filters and other components that add cost to the device.
GSA studies also suggest that hardware costs actually make up only 5% to 15% of total cost of ownership (TCO) and that service and operational costs can add up to much more over the life of the device. Major LTE vendors are working to bring down TCO for M2M applications by making it less expensive to develop and operate them.
For example, Sierra Wireless’ Open AT Application Framework, ALEOS Application Framework, and AirVantage Platform also provide comprehensive tools for developing M2M applications and managing devices, subscriptions, and underlying assets. These types of solutions allow OEMs and developers to create M2M applications once and port them to 2G, 3G, and 4G networks without code changes.
Clearly, this is an exciting time for our evolving industry as the rapid growth in new LTE networks brings greater opportunity for new and exciting M2M applications that will enhance our daily lives and help build the “Internet of things” today and for the future.