Successful Endeavours - Electronics Designs That Work!

Mobile Communications


LPWAN = Low Power Wide Area Network

LPWAN is typically thought about as cellular data networks but that involves a contradiction since cellular and low power are inherently in conflict with each other. For instance, a standard 3G or 4G cellular modem will have a peak current draw of up to 2A during transmission and needs to be carefully power managed if running from batteries. This has meant that a 10 year operating life from a primary cell battery either needs a huge primary cell or very infrequent communications. So what are the alternatives?

In IoT Versus M2M we looked at how the real benefit of IoT (Internet of Things) is that rather than a single Machine to Machine link being established, there are now multiple devices connected via shared web services and their combined data is being used to create extra value, and particularly if Big Data analytics is added to the mix.

SigFox Logo

SigFox Logo

LoRa Alliance

LoRa Alliance

There is also a lot of potential disruption in this. LoRa and SigFox are both looking to provide lower cost networks to replace dependency on cellular network operators for coverage and also address the power consumption problem. There is an excellent comparison of these 2 systems in SigFox versus LoRa. And both are trying to disrupt existing cellular network providers. An overall view at available at NB-IoT versus LoRa versus SigFox.

NB-IoT

Which introduces Narrow Band IoT or NB-IoT as it is now commonly abbreviated to. Just to continue the confusion of acronyms, it is also called CAT-NB and CAT-NB1. There is a detailed view of this technology and its likely long term adoption at NB-Iot is dead – Long live NB-IoT.

The summary is that NB-IoT is too late to market and requires too much equipment changeover to win the early adopter market, especially in the USA, but will win in the long term. In the interim there is a host of other options also being developed. The cellular network operators have realised, at least 5 years too late, that their business and technology models were both under attack simultaneously. This is a particularly dangerous form of disruption.

Hardware is now becoming available and China adoption of NB-IoT makes them the  main early adopter market.

 

Quectel BC95 NB-IoT Module

Quectel BC95 NB-IoT Module

u-blox SARA-N2 NB-IoT Module

u-blox SARA-N2 NB-IoT Module

Low Power Cellular

So if up until now, low power and cellular were not usually compatible concepts, what is changing to address that?

To reduce power consumption, you have to have one or more of the following:

  • reduce transmit power
  • increase receiver sensitivity
  • reduce transmit duration
  • increase transmit interval
  • reduce network registration time
  • reduce data rate

Some of these can be mutually exclusive. However the key elements that are working together is to reduce the data rate and use a modulation scheme that means the transmitter power can be reduced. LoRa does this very well and NB-IoT is looking to achieve a similar thing. There are trade-offs and the lower data rate for NB-IoT means it is best suited to very small packets. CAT-M1 will require less power for larger packets because the faster data rate means the transmit time is a lot shorter.

Low Cost Cellular

So we have looked at the power consumption angle. How about cost and business model. And there are 2 aspects to cost. There is the hardware cost and there is a the network operations cost. To reduce cost you have to do one or more of the following:

  • reduce silicon and software protocol stack complexity
  • high volume production allows economies of scale for hardware
  • increase the number of channels available in the network
  • increase the number of simultaneous connections in the network
  • reduce margins

Both SigFox and NB-IoT aim to make the end device hardware cost as low as possible. In the case of NB-IoT and CAT-M1 the channel bandwidth can be reduced and so the same bandwidth can support multiple devices instead of just one. The power level in the device transmitter is reduced by reducing the bandwidth and data rate. As an example, a CAT-M1 module has a peak transmitter current draw of 500mA which is a factor of 4 lower than CAT-1. So low cost and low power can go together very well.

The graph below shows how the various cellular standards relate to each other.

Cellular IoT standards and how they relate

Cellular IoT standards and how they relate

IoT Deployment Options

We have been using standard 3G/4G Cellular modems for our broadly distributed IoT offerings. As of the end of this month, we ship our first CAT-1 based offerings. These have the advantage of supporting both 4G with fall back to 3G. Although NB-IoT hardware is available now from both Quectel and u-blox, the networks in Australia don’t yet support it. And while NB-IoT is ideal for fixed location assets, we also do mobile systems so these need to be CAT-M1 once it is available.

CAT-M1 is expected to be available in Australia on the Telstra network around September 2017. I am also taking this as meaning that NB-IoT is 2018 or possibly even longer. So we plan to move to CAT-M1 as soon as it is available. The modules are expected to be available about the same time as the network upgrades.

Here are some CAT-1 and CAT-M1 offerings from Quectel and u-blox.

Quectel BG96 CAT-M1 Module

Quectel BG96 CAT-M1 Module

Quectel EC21 CAT-1 Module

Quectel EC21 CAT-1 Module

The Quectel EC21 is what we are deploying in our units later this month.

u-blox LARA-R2 CAT-1 Module

u-blox LARA-R2 CAT-1 Module

 

u-blox SARA-R404M CAT-M1 Module

u-blox SARA-R404M CAT-M1 Module

IoT Network Upgrades

Ericsson have announced the roll out plans for the Telstra Network CAT-M1 capability.

And Telstra have announced their own Telstra IoT Network Plans.

This is the overall Telstra road map. Summary:
CAT-1 now
CAT-M1 by September
NB-IoT sometime after that but no dates yet

Other carriers will follow although Vodafone are well placed to introduce NB-IoT first as they have Software Defined Radio base stations from Huawei and so can roll it out as a software update.

Successful Endeavours specialise in Electronics Design and Embedded Software Development, focusing on products that are intended to be Made In Australia. Ray Keefe has developed market leading electronics products in Australia for more than 30 years. This post is Copyright © 2017 Successful Endeavours Pty Ltd.

IoT Security

The Internet of Things, or IoT, is a pivotal component of the future and is driving initiatives from Smart Cities through Ubiquitous Computing and Augmented Reality. Of course the next step up from Smart Cities is a Smarter Planet. But we aren’t at Smart Cities yet.

An enabling technology like IoT can also have roadblocks to adoption. The principal ones being addressed now are:

  • power consumption
  • cost of goods
  • size
  • security

The biggest issue right now is IoT Security. Recent DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks have used IoT Devices as the attack launchers. They are being selected because many have weaker security than fully fledged computing devices.

DDoS or Distributed Denial of Service

DDoS or Distributed Denial of Service

In a recent article on IEEE Spectrum on the Path to IoT Security it is argued that IoT Manufacturers must take responsibility and not leave it up to end users. There is also a role of industry standards however no clear set of standards have yet been agreed. So although 2016 is the Year of IoT, with this being the single biggest category of product shipped, it is still very early days where things like IoT Security and IoT Interoperability are concerned.

IoT Security versus Software Security

This is not a new dilemma. Software Security is always important and it becomes increasingly important as Internet Communicating IoT Devices become more widespread. One apparent assumption underlying all this is that an IoT Device must be a fully IP Stack capable platform. That is not necessarily the case. In the video I shared about our Water Metering Remote Telemetry project one thing I didn’t mention is that the data stream is all driven from the IoT Device. There is nothing to log into. You can’t patch it with a Windows, Linux or other OS patch to override its function. It is not capable of being used in a DDoS attack because you can’t get to anything in it that can do that. So it is inherently secure against that form of risk.

Internet of Things Cconnectivity

Internet of Things Connectivity

However there are other risks. Nick Hunn has an insightful piece on Wireless Security for IoT where he argues that we are declaring security is present while having no evidence of proving it. That article is a little dated but the basic tenets still seem to apply. Just because a manufacturer or industry alliance states they have addressed security, it doesn’t make it automatically true.

So IoT Security is Software Security with the added component of protecting the physical hardware.

IoT Security in the Future

We still don’t have standards, so for now, individual device manufacturers and alliance members will need to ensure they have adequate security out of the box. The level of security required is determined by the importance of the data, either its security against unauthorised access, or its integrity against falsification. And at the asset level, its proof against either being disabled or used as an attack vector.

As an example, I am personally not so concerned if a hacker can find out how much electricity use my smart meter is reporting. Unless they get time of day usage and can correlate with other data sources to work out in advance when we aren’t home so they can rob us. My energy provider probably cares more about this data for all its customers coming into a competitors hands. Or maybe not. But I do care that I don’t get an outrageous bill because they were able to send fake data for my account to a server.

And energy grid managers care about usage data and Smart Meter appliance management being used to crash an entire electricity grid!

In the case of the Water Metering Remote Telemetry project I care that it remains online and working because otherwise someone will have to travel a long way to fix it. We have a facility in Gilgandra that is 892Km away as the crow flies. It will take a full day to get there and then another to back again. So I want it to be proof against some hacker disabling its communication ability. Since it has a physical antenna, I do care about that being hard to break. So some of these devices are put above normal reach and everything is inside a secure plastic case including the antenna. And our customer wants to know the reported water usage is correct. This means no missing data, and no incorrect data. They use the data to bill their customers.

One simple way to mess up data is a Replay Attack. If you can intercept and copy a data transmission, then you can play back that transmission any time you want to. You don’t even have to understand the content, the encryption, anything. Simply capture a HTTP POST or GET and replay it. Why does this matter? Because if the data transmitted is the volume of water used since the last report, then every time you play it back, you add to someone’s water bill. Or you distort the level of water the system believes is in a tank or reservoir. You can protect against these attacks in a number of ways but you have to consider the need to protect against them first of all.

There is a large volume of material on this topic. Here are some additional articles you might find useful for broadening your perspective on this topic:

I’m sure you won’t find it hard to search out a lot more articles. Just consider this. Once it has an Internet connection, any device can access anywhere in the world. And most firewalls protect against incoming attacks. A corrupted device on the inside can get out any time it wants to.

Internet of Things Global Reach

Internet of Things Global Reach

And if you want a really interesting view of what this could be like 10 years from now, I recommend reading Rainbow’s End by Vernor Vinge. Enjoy. And this isn’t my first reference to this book because I think it is fairly prescient in its exploration of a most probable future.

Successful Endeavours specialise in Electronics Design and Embedded Software Development, focusing on products that are intended to be Made In Australia. Ray Keefe has developed market leading electronics products in Australia for more than 30 years. This post is Copyright © 2016 Successful Endeavours Pty Ltd.

State iAwards 2016

The state iAwards for 2016 are done and dusted and Skynanny has received a merit award, this time in the consumer product category. Here is a copy of the announcement.

VIC

Consumer – Merit Recipient

SKY NANNY – Nuguy Nominees Pty Ltd t/as SKY NANNY

SkyNanny is a child safety product built for parents by parents. It is a device worn by a child in his/her clothing which is paired to the parent’s mobile phone. Its more than just a location device. SkyNanny will prevent your child from going missing in the first place.

View the skynanny website

Now they are off to the National iAwards where the winners will be announced at a gala dinner on 1 September 2016.

Our congratulations go to Skynanny and also our thanks or having been involved in the development of such a useful product. In 2015 they were merit award recipients for the New Product category.

Successful Endeavours specialise in Electronics Design and Embedded Software Development, focusing on products that are intended to be Made In Australia. Ray Keefe has developed market leading electronics products in Australia for more than 30 years. This post is Copyright © 2016 Successful Endeavours Pty Ltd.

5G Mobile Technology

5G is the latest in the mobile communications and follows on from 4G which is what is powering most high performance mobile commuting devices in advanced economies today. However the exact technical standards and technologies to implement 5G are still being formulated. At its heart lies the requirements for increased mobile data, the explosion of widely distributed and connected devices known as the Internet of Things, a huge increase in the number of simultaneous connections needing to be operating together and the need to reduce both the cost of devices and the energy demand to sustain the data transfer rates.

Another way of putting this, is that we are in the Requirements Capture and Technology Assessment phase of this global project. In 5 years time we will be in the roll out phase.

From 1G to 5G

The following infographic from the LTE World Series Conference Blog helps to explain the changes as we moved from 1G analog communications in the early 1990s to the current 4G LTE technology and onward to 5G next decade.

5G Mobile Communications Infographic

5G Mobile Communications Infographic

IEEE Spectrum are also watching with interest as Experts Plot A Path to 5G.

Successful Endeavours specialise in Electronics Design and Embedded Software Development. Ray Keefe has developed market leading electronics products in Australia for nearly 30 years. This post is Copyright © 2015 Successful Endeavours Pty Ltd.