LTE: is speed what everyone needs?

By Stefano Moioli, Director Product Management Cellular, u-blox

Developers of the first analogue cellular networks that began to proliferate in the 1980s would be amazed to see how far cellular technology has advanced in the intervening thirty years or so – if they’d been entirely out of the loop in the meantime. While their networks were intended and optimized for voice traffic, these days most of the traffic on the networks is data.

LTE (Long Term Evolution) is the roadmap set out by 3GPP (the multi-standards organization 3 rd Generation Partnership Plan) for migrating second and third generation (2G and 3G) cellular networks to a much higher speed fourth generation (4G) wireless broadband technology. It is generally touted as one of the technologies that are fundamental to kick-starting progress towards the future of computing in the shape of the Internet of Things (IoT), in which billions of devices with embedded intelligence are predicted to be connected to the Internet by 2020.

Seat of conflict…

But with these few words, we’ve already outlined the basis on which conflict in the marketplace is seated. Yes, for the idealists, the technology early adopters, the big high tech companies, faster is better, but that leaves many of the needs of the masses in the middle currently unanswered.  For many in industry, more may be less. It’s rather reminiscent of the line argued by the British economist E.F.Schumacher in his seminal collection of essays: “Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered”, first published in 1973. His theory, which still holds true today, was that small and appropriate technologies give the individual more power. It’s still an economic theory that is largely ignored by politicians and global multi-nationals, for whom Schumacher’s “gigantism” and consumer capitalism continue to represent the way forward.

It seems that individuals too are lured by the technology and the promise it holds out to them: they crave the speed that LTE offers them. It gives them the ability to take the familiar environment of their home life out into their working life: downloading video while on the move; having infotainment available at the touch of a button or at a spoken command. For many companies, LTE’s speed is also attractive for any number of commercial activities. Think for instance of security applications, which are becoming increasingly relevant in the current ISIS-inspired climate of fear: scanning large crowds of people, for instance at airports or other events where masses gather, and providing individual facial recognition services that can be matched almost instantaneously using banks of data stored elsewhere, quite probably in the cloud.

The ability to provide high volumes of data while on the move also opens up the market for the development of a variety of new applications, limited only by the developers’ imaginations. LTE technology is highly suitable for time-critical applications where split-second reaction to events could make the difference between life and death – for instance in automotive safety, avoiding collisions using vehicle to vehicle communications.

Consider the small things

LTE’s suitability for these high end tasks is undoubted: its ability to store and retrieve large volumes of data at speed is highly attractive and will continue to be so as it develops into the future. Users now expect similar performance while they are on the move to that obtainable with wired networks. But where the technology is starting to fall short is actually for connecting many of those devices expected to form the backbone of the IoT, the millions of small things that the IoT is expected to cater for and connect.

Millions of devices that do not necessarily or intrinsically possess great intelligence, as well as those that only need to transmit data intermittently – and then not in great volume – are not really likely to need the high speed characteristics offered by LTE. Many of these are devices that will be expected to remain in operation for some time – ten years or so. As such, they will far outlive existing cellular technologies such as GSM, CDMA and UMTS and so will need to be able to operate using LTE. They include non-bandwidth-critical devices such as smart meters, asset tracking products and alarm panels designed for machine to machine (M2M) communication.

Nokia, in a White Paper published in 2015 entitled ‘LTE-M – Optimizing LTE for the Internet of Things’ states: “LTE was designed for few simultaneous users with high data rates. IoT traffic requires support for many users each having a very low data rate. Therefore, the core network can support IoT but optimizations would be highly beneficial, especially once the number of connected devices increases”. 3GPP is looking at ways to cater for the problem.

There’s obviously still some way to go, but it’s good to know that the needs of the M2M community are being catered for just as much as those of the speed merchants. And in the meantime, the roadmap for 5G systems is – well, on the road…

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