Taking the IIoT Beyond WiFi: Consider 4G LTE

Alan Earls headshotWill 4G be the future of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)?  Well, probably at least in part. There are plenty of “things” that aren’t located in places that are easy to reach with Ethernet or WiFi. Maybe it’s a solar array on a hillside – or just at the far end of the parking lot. Regardless of the exact location, that extra distance could leave inconvenient gaps in the IIoT.

The other great contender for wireless connectivity, which has seamless coverage over much of North America, is the mobile phone network. In many places, this can now support so-called 4G transmissions, which can deliver mobile broadband Internet access for computers with wireless modems, video, and more.  Most smart devices, however, don’t need that much bandwidth. Still, costs made equipping devices with this phone technology problematic or even prohibitive. Recently, an Israeli company announced that it has gotten a jump on the 4G trend.

Altair Semiconductor (www.altair-semi.com), a developer of ultra-low power, small footprint chipsets for 4G, has announced its new FourGee-1160 and FourGee-1150; lower cost and lower performance Category-1 and Category-0 chipsets, which they say should pave the way for many IIoT applications to deploy commercially this year.

Cell towerThe company says top-tier carriers, device makers and module vendors have shifted gears in recent months in preparation for an aggressive introduction of numerous “smart” IIoT applications. They just needed Long Term Evolution (LTE) Category-1 (CAT-1) and Category-0 (CAT-0) chipsets to become available.

According to the company CAT-1 and CAT-0 are lower speed and power versions of the LTE standard, which dramatically extends the addressable market for carriers and chip makers alike. They introduce new IIoT targeted features, extend battery operation and lower the cost of adding LTE connectivity.

Altair Semiconductor says its chips feature extremely low power consumption, and that could enable independent operation for weeks or even years, depending on the use case.    

LTE, commonly marketed as 4G LTE, is a standard for wireless communication of high-speed data for mobile phones and data terminals. It is based on the GSM/EDGE and UMTS/HSPA network technologies, increasing the capacity and speed using a different radio interface together with core network improvements. The standard is developed by the 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project), which unites seven telecommunications standards development organizations involved with LTE. It should be noted that there are multiple opinions regarding what actually constitutes 4G. Many carriers may have jumped the gun on the “real deal.”  The point is that there’s more coverage and more bandwidth becoming available, potentially of use in “wiring” the IIoT.

According to a recent blog post by David Maidment, who is with chip design company ARM, “ultimately the success of the cellular industry in M2M depends mainly on addressing challenges affecting cost, power saving and coverage.”  New chips like those from Altair Semiconductor will likely be part of that picture. And, for those architecting IIoT networks, that means a new level of deployment flexibility is on the horizon.

One additional aspect of LTE that remains little addressed is security. A number of observers have indicated that 4G has a number of potential vulnerabilities. For instance, in an engineering.com article, (High Speed LTE Networks Have Major Vulnerabilities) Kyle Maxey points out that the amount of bandwidth dedicated to maintaining communication between a device and its network is too limited, making it possible for 4G signals to be easily jammed or otherwise disrupted.  The breadth of these issues and some possible solutions is also discussed in detail in an article from the Cyber Security & Information Systems Information Analysis Center.


Alan R. Earls is a Boston-based writer focused on technology, business, and manufacturing — a field where he spent the earliest part of his career. He has written for publications and websites as diverse as The Boston GlobeComputerworld and Modern Infrastructure as well as Industry, The Manufacturer, and Today's Machining World.