What is Cellular IoT? The 2023 Guide
Considering cellular connectivity for an IoT project? Just want to know how it all works? This guide to cellular IoT will get you up to speed.
What Is Cellular IoT and How Does It Work?
Cellular IoT connects physical objects by piggybacking on the cellular networks we often use. Simply put, it facilitates a massive data stream among sensors, actuators, etc., while saving costs by eliminating the need to build new network infrastructure.
Companies benefiting from cellular IoT include those in the automotive, mining, manufacturing, and agriculture sectors—and the technology’s popularity shows no signs of slowing down, with Ericsson forecasting roughly 5 billion cellular IoT connections by 2025 and Juniper Research recently predicting that the value of the global cellular IoT market will exceed $61 billion by 2026.
What’s more, with the 3G sunset and 5G network boom yielding higher-bandwidth solutions normally allocated to Wi-Fi or wired Ethernet, an increasing number of businesses are seeing great potential in cellular IoT.
So, how does cellular IoT connect physical assets, and how can you harness the technology to optimize your business? This guide will discuss everything you need to know.
The Cellular IoT Ecosystem
In this day and age, most people have heard of SIM cards, yet few understand how they actually work. According to JT Zemp, cellular tech lead at Particle, a SIM card is a chip with a unique identifier that a modem knows how to communicate with. When the SIM card "talks to" the network, this unique ID serves as a passport of sorts.
Major carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile act as gatekeepers that determine whether to let a SIM card onto their networks based on the answers to a few key questions: Can it connect to their networks? What are its capabilities? Is it allowed to roam? Where should data be sent? The cellular plan associated with the card provides this information and more, which lets carriers know how much to charge for usage.
Getting a single SIM card from a single carrier is easy, but if your IoT project requires numerous SIM cards and cellular providers to work in concert, the process can become time-consuming and expensive.
"You typically don't want to go and make a contract with a specific cellular provider because they're going to charge you more than some of the aggregators will," explained JT. "So, in terms of picking a telephony partner, you want to pick a partner that has relationships with a lot of different carriers."
Enter Particle’s EtherSIM, which enables stable and seamless connectivity across the globe. Because we have relationships with several large telephony conglomerates, our EtherSIM card can connect your IoT project to the best available network among over 350 carriers in 150 countries.
Comparing Cellular IoT With Other Connectivity Technologies
Cellular vs. Wi-Fi for IoT Deployments
Choosing the best connectivity method depends on a variety of factors, including cost, reliability and security, coverage, location detection, data throughput, and device provisioning.
Unlike WiFi, cellular has automatic encryption that provides more robust privacy and security. As you learned earlier, cellular also offers more comprehensive coverage with no set range or need of a router—and while some forms of the technology can be power-hungry, others can run on a small battery for an extended time.
Read our guide on cellular vs. WiFi to learn more about when to choose each deployment and discover additional use cases for cellular IoT.
Cellular vs. LoRaWAN
LoRaWAN is a low-power, long range, low data rate wireless protocol. It runs on 900MHz in the Americas/ANZ and 868MHz in Europe/Asia. To access these networks, no SIM card is required—just a LoRaWAN radio and unique ID.
There are two kinds of LoRaWAN networks:
- Private: a customer sets up their own network (e.g. a mine or farm)
- Public: a customer uses a network that was set up by a Network Operator (Actility, Senet, et al)
Companies or developers in the process of building out an IoT deployment will often compare cellular vs. LoRaWAN for connectivity. While there are some technical decisions that need to be made, the right place to start is thinking about the use case and unit economics of the product, and then working backward to the correct technology.
As a general rule of thumb, here is how you can ensure the connectivity tech you choose makes sense for your use case and business model.
LoRaWAN LoRaWAN is a good fit when the value of a single monitored device is low, but the value of collecting data from hundreds of devices is high, as it is in use cases like soil sensing, metering, etc. It’s also best if you’re charging a recurring fee for the data-in-aggregate, rather than per asset.
For example, LoRaWAN makes more sense for getting a weather data stream across 100 distributed stations in the Permian Basin, vs. an eBike where a single asset generates revenue.
Cellular Cellular is a good fit for when the connected asset(s) are high value because they’re either generating revenue during operation or their failure would result in some kind of cost such as a fine, service call/truck roll, or unplanned equipment breakdown. It’s also a good fit for when each deployed product can earn subscription revenue with a substantial margin.
For more, check out our in-depth comparison of cellular vs. LoRaWAN.
How Cellular IoT Benefits IoT Projects
Cellular IoT provides end-to-end security. In other words, modern mobile networks encrypt traffic to prevent attackers from accessing IoT-enabled devices and block network peers from inspecting the setup.
“One benefit is protection from eavesdropping, so nobody else can listen in on what the devices are saying and doing. Number two is that nobody else can tamper with the devices,” JT said.
Such advantages set cellular IoT apart from point-to-point radio or Wi-Fi, which connect devices infrastructure that can be easily inspected by network peers.
In addition, customers who use cellular IoT don’t need to worry about IoT breaches affecting their home or business networks, as hackers can’t attack networks from a device connected only to cellular.
And for good measure, Particle adds an additional layer of encryption on top of cellular communications to provide enhanced device and data protection for our customers. This is crucial if your product handles sensitive business or personal data.
Check out our IoT security checklist to learn more about how you can protect your connected products.
Although many cellular networks can be power-hungry, nascent cellular technologies such as narrowband IoT and Cat M1 are the exception, providing a low power IoT connectivity option.
According to JT, devices equipped with these technologies can run on a small battery for an extended time—unlike Wi-Fi and radio devices, which typically require much more power.
Many businesses favor cellular technology for its flexible deployment and ability to track mobile or in-motion assets. Unlike Wi-Fi–enabled devices that are constrained by limited coverage ranges and fixed locations, devices that use cellular IoT can be deployed anywhere with cell coverage.
Moreover, ease of setup cannot be overstated, as inserting a SIM card results in automatic connection to the Internet.
Common Challenges of Using Cellular Connectivity for IoT
Availability in Rural Areas
The biggest challenge associated with using cellular IoT is availability, as not every location has optimal connectivity or cell tower access. This is especially true in rural areas that often have poorly constructed cellular infrastructures.
“There are some companies that are actually deploying nanosatellites… to target these rural areas,” noted Keerthy.
Compared to WiFi and Bluetooth, cellular connectivity can be power-hungry, as power consumption is directly related to a cell signal’s stabilization.
“If you're receiving a good signal, you get a smooth connection that doesn't consume much power," Keerthy explained. "However, if the device is at the edge of a cell tower's range, more power is required to ensure a reliable connection, which has a negative impact on battery lifetime.”
To conserve power and maximize device uptime, Particle offers a sleep mode for times that IoT applications don’t need to function. This is especially beneficial for asset trackers in use cases such as geofencing.
From an engineering perspective, securing certifications can be challenging. For FCC certifications alone, 80 percent of first-time requests fail. Even if you make minor changes to an already-certified device, you may have to go through the process again.
At best, certifications can take months to handle on your own, and that’s if everything goes perfectly. Certification rejections can set your project back considerably.
To make certifications easier, Particle ensures all of our devices come certified, so you only have to focus on getting what you build on top of our platform certified yourself.
“We have all the right equipment to help certify the module. During the test, we will apply a set of test suites and cases that run on the module to make sure that the devices are not exceeding the limits, transmit power, etc.,” JT said.
Accessing cellular networks will require you to work with a mobile network operator or a mobile virtual network operator. Next, let’s take a closer look at each option and its corresponding costs.
Working Directly With MNOs
In the U.S., major carriers such as AT&T and T-Mobile are examples of highly visible MNOs. If you choose to work directly with an MNO, you’ll need to negotiate contracts and manage relationships with numerous telephony carriers (sometimes across multiple countries), all while navigating variations associated with carrier- and country-based pricing.
It’s also important to note that in addition to paying these carriers’ monthly SIM activation and data usage fees, you may be hit with unexpected charges related to data overages.
Working With IoT MVNOs
MVNOs such as Walmart Family Mobile are wireless communications service providers that require you to negotiate a contract with a SIM provider. MVNOs typically have high rates and limited roaming relationships, which can result in reduced coverage.
Whether you elect to work with an MNO or an MVNO, you may run into issues troubleshooting outages, as MNOs don’t tend to offer support and MVNOs typically don’t provide direct visibility into the cellular networking infrastructure.
In other words, “You’re on your own,” said JT. “You'll have to hire your own experts in cellular connectivity as well as hardware and firmware.”
Read our guide to IoT device management to learn how a robust platform can help you manage device connectivity across your entire fleet.
Supporting Customers With Poor Connectivity
Businesses implementing IoT projects often experience cellular connectivity issues due to factors such as deployment density and location.
It stands to reason that the number of modules deployed in a location will directly affect connectivity when the deployment density exceeds the local cell tower’s capabilities. In these instances, staggered deployments and/or additional resources are typically required to rectify the issue.
With these challenges in mind, Particle’s device firmware uses a retry mechanism that power-cycles the cellular modem after a configurable time of no connectivity and tries various intervention techniques to speed up cellular registration in compliance with carrier guidelines.
Moreover, as Keerthy pointed out, “If we are not able to connect on one carrier, there is always a way to fall back onto another carrier. For example, with Particle’s EtherSIM, let's say that AT&T has connectivity problems in my location. My SIM card will automatically fall back on T-Mobile because AT&T and T-Mobile are both enabled—but if I were using an AT&T-only SIM, that wouldn’t be possible.”
Common Cellular IoT Standards and Categories
The 3rd Generation Partnership Project is a collaborative effort that was undertaken by a group of telecommunication associations with the goal of developing globally applicable specifications for 3G mobile systems in order to create a cellular standard.
4G LTE Cellular Categories
There are several cellular IoT network categories under the 4G LTE umbrella: LTE Cat 1, LTE Cat M1, and NB-IoT. We’ll take a look at these in more detail next.
LTE Cat 1 Designed for servicing IoT applications, LTE CAT 1 is known as a cost- and power-saving option for large-scale and long-range applications thanks to its relatively low bandwidth and low communication demand.
As 3G sunsets across the globe, experts predict that LTE Cat 1 will replace it for major U.S. carriers.
LTE Cat M1 Also known as Cat-M, LTE Cat M1 is a low-cost, low-power, wide-area network that specializes in transferring low to medium amounts of data. Many operators favor LTE Cat M1 as it is compatible with the prevailing LTE network, which means major carriers don’t need to invest in new antennas when they pivot to LTE Cat M1.
NB-IoT This new, fast-growing, low-power, wide-area technology is intended to specifically target the needs of battery-powered IoT devices. It offers significant improvements in power consumption, system capacity, and spectrum efficiency, and can support huge fleets with up to 50,000 devices per network cell.
However, NB-IoT’s limited bandwidth can compromise data transmission, making essential features like over-the-air updates difficult to achieve, and the protocol has seen limited support across worldwide geographies thus far.
In addition to the aforementioned cellular network protocols, application-level IoT data protocols such as AMOP, MQTT, HTTP, CoAP, DDS, and LwM2M are also in the mix.
Read our in-depth guide to common IoT protocols and standards to learn about how each can be used for IoT deployments.
Real-World Cellular IoT Applications
Emissions monitoring and leak detection traditionally require operators to regularly visit and inspect plants regularly, which is both costly and time-consuming. With IoT, it’s possible to detect, measure, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in real time, which reduces the amount of time that operators need to spend on site.
Qube, the company that provides continuous emissions monitoring solutions to oil and gas companies, is revolutionizing the industry by weaving in IoT technology built on Particle.
Qube’s devices achieved remote connection with Particle’s EtherSIM solution, a globally available, self-optimizing cellular connectivity. This industry-leading cellular connectivity solution ensures a continuous stream of data, which can motivate the cycle and facilitate the model improvement over time.
In addition, Particle’s industry-leading Over-The-Air updates allowed Qube to instantly update thousands of devices. In addition to significantly reducing truck rolls, this allows Qube to save money that can then be poured into efforts such as innovation incubators to build its competitive edge.
Micromobility/Light Electric Vehicles
Micromobility is revolutionizing urban transportation by providing a low-cost, portable, and environmentally friendly way for people to navigate cities, whether they’re commuting to work or making deliveries. Indeed, leading logistics providers have invested heavily in last-mile delivery over recent years, with many recognizing IoT’s potential to improve safety, sustainability, and profitability.
So, how can cellular IoT benefit light electric vehicles? With the technology providing connectivity for movable assets, operators receive real-time data on important metrics such as vehicle performance, have the ability to remotely issue fleetwide OTA updates, and can unlock new product features and functionalities.
Check out how Particle’s Platform-as-a-Service can give you the edge, connectivity, and software to build responsive IoT-enabled electric vehicles.
Watsco, the largest distributor in the HVAC/R industry, is now helping homeowners and HVAC contractors monitor their A/C systems 24/7 by building connected systems based on cellular IoT.
Using Particle’s Platform-as-a-Service, Watsco was able to set up a connected device for each customer/site that significantly reduced truck rolls for contractors, led to more profitable service trips, and brought in new sources of recurring revenue.
Learn how you can develop IoT-enabled HVAC systems that create new revenue streams, deliver improved service models, and ensure peak performance.
Building Cellular IoT Solutions With Particle
With Particle’s Platform-as-a-Service, you can access cellular connectivity for IoT that just works. Our devices are built to connect as soon as you turn them on, and offer secure and reliable connectivity for your device-to-cloud communication.
Particle uses best-in-class technologies and hardware components integrated into one seamless, scalable and secure platform. That means you get:
- Access to LTE CAT M1 and LTE CAT1 connectivity options across 350 carriers around the world.
- Best-in-class cellular IoT modules—the Boron, a cellular-enabled dev kit, and the B SoM, a production-ready cellular module.
- Seamless scalability thanks to pre-integrated connectivity management and data services.
- Complete connectivity management that includes SIM management, multi-path networking support, IP navigation, connectivity health logging, 24/7 incident management, and long-term support guarantees.
- A process for testing and certifiying your devices quickly and with significantly reduced risk
- Fully-integrated diagnostics device responsiveness, SIM card status, cellular signals, battery life, and more.
Learn more about how Particle’s integrated, full-stack IoT Platform-as-a-Service makes cellular connectivity for IoT achievable and affordable.