Navigating Unreliable Cell Coverage: 3 Powerful Ways to Handle Spotty Service Once and for All

Unreliable cellular coverage can drastically impact the performance of your IoT product. Learn what causes cellular unreliability and how you can overcome it in your own connected products.

Multiple carriers. Moving assets. Constant cell tower jumping. Remote areas. Maybe one day we’ll live in a world with perfect cell coverage, but until then, industry leaders and innovative developers must navigate these challenges.

If you’ve ever taken a DIY approach to keeping your Internet of Things-connected products on the grid (such as by using a low-cost platform or SIM solution), you’re not alone. Last year, the mobile satellite communications provider Inmarsat set out to gauge how 450 people across the agriculture, electrical utilities, transportation and logistics, mining, and oil sectors approached their IoT-reliant projects. The results of the study included the following:

  • A total of 3 in 4 businesses struggle to deploy IoT projects because of connectivity challenges.
  • Respondents identified the most important connectivity attributes as reliability, security, and network coverage.
  • Cell coverage issues are especially pronounced in Latin America, Russia, and "the -stans," likely due to limited terrestrial connectivity.

Although unreliable cell connectivity is a huge issue, keeping your moving assets and IoT-connected devices online and working consistently is possible. But first, let’s get to the root of the connectivity problem.

Unreliable Cellular Connectivity = Unreliable Products

Unreliable cell service is more than just inconvenient; it leads to brand damage, customer frustration, and ultimately revenue loss when products don’t work as expected. Let’s look at a couple of examples:

Bike Rental and Ridesharing

A bike rental company in Austria used to struggle with inconsistent connectivity across its fleet. If a bike entered a remote area and went offline, nobody could return or rent that bike again until it was back in a cell-connected spot.

This meant customers would rent bikes, pedal off the grid, and then be unable to “end” their rides via the app. As you can imagine, these customers racked up ridiculous bills ($10,000+) because their rides “never ended.” The bike rental company ended up eating the cost of the bill when this happened, and it would subsequently lose customers due to the hassle of calling customer service. The company has since turned to Particle for help.

Flood Control

A U.S. flood control company—now also a customer of ours—has connected devices spread throughout high flood-risk cities. When there's a big storm coming, the company drains all wet zones to accommodate the impending water and create “capture facilities.” In the past, drains that weren’t connected and controllable from afar wouldn’t open or close as needed, and the resulting loss of critical data points was both inconvenient and damaging to infrastructure, devices, crops, and equipment in the vicinity.

And these two examples are just the tip of the iceberg. We’ve also heard stories about spotty cell coverage resulting in a lack of reliable theft prevention capabilities and general headaches associated with programming small devices to think independently without robust edge computing.

Check out our guide to cellular IoT to learn more about what it takes to ship a successful cellular-connected product.

Where Is Cellular Connectivity Most Unreliable?

As you might expect, remote and rural areas tend to be the worst places for cellular connectivity due to lack of cellular coverage, and connectivity is even more unpredictable for moving devices. Suppose a ventilator in a large hospital has to jump between towers for a good connection—if the new tower doesn’t have the required carrier, the hospital risks losing service entirely.

Unreliable cell connectivity can also become an issue when critical infrastructure isn’t in place to support multiple high-data (or even low-data) transmitting devices. For example, a teammate of ours lives in a country that experiences frequent rolling electricity blackouts. Towers’ batteries become so depleted that they go offline—and that means no connection, no carrier coverage, and no working IoT-connected devices.

Learn more about cellular vs. Wi-Fi for IoT.

What Causes Cellular Unreliability?

In addition to power outages, the following causes of cellular unreliability are entirely out of your control as a connectivity-focused professional:

  • Weak signal: If you live in a place with few towers, concrete-laden skyscrapers, or mountains and valleys, having a bad signal is your reality. While 5G helps, it doesn’t completely solve the problem.
  • Carrier unavailability: No carrier has perfect coverage, so service may be limited in your area of the world.
  • Carrier or mobile virtual network operator outage: Unless you have a managed SIM service using multiple carriers, carrier or MVNO outages prevent connectivity. While these outages are rare, it's not uncommon for specific towers to be down.

Common Barriers to Consistent Connectivity

Although issues such as weak signals, carrier unavailability, and outages are generally outside of our control as IoT engineers and developers, some barriers to consistent connectivity are actually preventable. People trying to be scrappy and agile in their IoT scale-up efforts often make these mistakes:

  • Purchasing cheap SIMs with pre-bought data. These SIMs typically only sustain single-carrier coverage, and you’ll be the lowest priority for that carrier.
  • Going with local carriers and buying off-the-shelf SIMs. These deals are tempting because they offer cheap data contracts, but the customer support on the other side of the purchase is rarely up to snuff for what you’ll need.
  • Signing up for unmanaged SIM services. If something goes wrong after you sign up, you can expect to get little to no support from the carrier.

Next, we’ll explore a more strategic way to ensure you’re providing strong cellular connections.

How to Handle Unreliable Connectivity and Deliver Consistent Customer Experiences and Product Performance

Cellular connectivity is complex, and there’s currently no catch-all solution that ensures 100% connection. But while you can’t mitigate every threat to connectivity, you can tackle most of them by taking three smart steps:

1. Use a Managed SIM Service

Using a managed SIM service is the first thing you should do to maintain connectivity. Our connectivity management solution Particle Connectivity builds self-optimizing cellular connectivity into devices to save teams hours of hassle. For cellular devices, our EtherSIM service is just the ticket.

As stated earlier, choosing one carrier is how you end up with spotty connections. EtherSIM cards pick up connectivity globally by moving between multiple carriers and optimizing between towers for the best signal. Plus, EtherSIMs are constantly improving.

We focus on continuous improvement and carrier relationships so you don’t have to.

Continually improving your products is your priority, and keeping them connected is ours. One nuance of using multiple carriers for EtherSIM products is that we’re constantly managing carrier relationships for you.

Let’s say you had a contract with AT&T—or maybe you just bought a handful of AT&T SIM cards. To activate these cards, you had to go to your local store… or give AT&T a call and hope you could get live fast. Because MVNOs’ customer success teams can’t necessarily focus on the specific connectivity needs of a single customer, trusting that they’ll have enough capacity to keep your devices live is a gamble at best.

At Particle, we maintain close partnerships with multiple global carriers to keep our EtherSIM customers off the customer service back burner, unlocking immediate access to Tier 1 carriers without juggling multiple contracts. In addition, we advise our customers on how best to incorporate current technologies and migrate from tech that’s on the way out (the in-process 3G sunset is a good example). As better carriers pop up in new locations, we add them to our EtherSIM offering and update our products accordingly.

2. Craft a Solution That Prioritizes Battery and Data-Saving

The second critical step involves prioritizing data and battery in your cell coverage solution. (Note: Particle offers a competitive Network Address Translation timeout limit that makes saving battery and data easy.)

Here’s a bird’s-eye view of how this works: Because your devices must constantly send data to stay connected to most cellular networks, you pay just to stay connected… even if your devices aren’t sending useful data.

Particle’s NAT timeout is 23 minutes. In other words, your device only has to send data once during that interval to maintain bidirectional communication, which makes IoT device management much easier and more cost-effective. In comparison to the average AT&T NAT timeout of 60 seconds, bidirectional connectivity provides a lower-power and less resource-intensive way of keeping your devices live.

Power management is a big part of cellular management and cost control for connected devices. When replacing batteries is difficult or expensive, your ability to balance power management with performance and usability will determine your business leadership success.

To ensure this success, consider investing in the most power-efficient subsystems—computers, cellular modems, power delivery, and storage—for the connected products you’re supporting. It’s also essential to control the modes in which your IoT device operates (such as transmitting, idle, ultra low power, and shipping).

Check out our article on low-power IoT to learn more about how modes improve power-saving.

3. Look for an Integrated Solution

Using an integrated solution like Particle’s IoT Platform-as-a-Service is the best way to keep your fleets of devices happy and connected. In addition to offering a managed, multiple-carrier cellular service, our solution has a pre-prepared connectivity bundle that comes complete with software and a connectivity stack to turn your business vision into a reality.

If you buy point solutions made by different manufacturers, it’s tough to get them to communicate (think of how hard it is to make an iPhone, a PC laptop, and an Apple mouse play nice!). Conversely, integration is seamless when products are designed to talk to each other.

Another critical benefit of an integrated solution is that your products are more stable. Rather than being piecemealed together, connectivity works reliably in the background—so if you tell a device to publish a message, you can rest easy knowing it’ll get there.

Yes, it’s possible to put together a solution with cheap devices and manual processes like getting your SIM cards set up at the carrier store. Still, we challenge you to consider the opportunity cost of that solution. Long-term, disparate knowledge spread across the cloud, firmware, and connectivity will not serve you (or your customers) as well as a streamlined solution would.

Today, thousands of developers realize they don’t have the time or money to invest in unreliable cell coverage. Instead, they rely on Particle to save them time and win them customers.

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