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Connectivity Glossary - Turn Tech Speak into Useful Information

Connectivity, IoT, Glossary

Ross Gray

Ross Gray

Vice President and General Manager, IoT Connected Services Group

We previously published a glossary on IoT to provide a basic understanding of some of the terms used in the industry.

As a refresher, the Internet of Things (IoT) refers to using embedded modules, routers and other edge devices to connect a wide variety of “things” –  smart lockers, vending machines, unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), power generators,  smart meters, water-treatment systems, electric vehicle chargers, air compressors – to the internet. With the IoT, we can collect information from and send information to these things, enabling us to monitor, manage, control, and optimize their operation in ways that were not possible before.

IoT is absolutely changing our world, but all these devices and the applications associated with them can only be relevant if they are connected and collecting/delivering data to the desired people and locations. For many of the applications, the connection needs to be real-time and cannot be interrupted. The only way to know that the connection is always working is for it to be managed. But who will manage connectivity? What needs to be managed? How will they manage it?

While not comprehensive, this glossary for connectivity will help answer some of these question by providing simple definitions of some of the most important cellular IoT connectivity terms. It is not meant to be highly technical or exhaustive. Instead, it is an easy-to-access resource for people seeking to improve their understanding of IoT and connectivity so they can better manage their current IoT applications and plan future IoT initiatives.

The Basics

What does “always-on” connectivity mean?

“Always-on” connectivity means that no matter where a device is located or when it is in use, it can be connected to the network or internet without interruption. For example, IoT devices in a warehouse that are monitoring equipment being loaded onto a pallet need to have “always-on” connectivity to ensure they are properly doing the function they were designed to do and communicating on a constant basis to prevent disruption. If one device were to go offline, the entire process could be compromised.

What are the wireless cellular generations?

Smartphones, wireless gateways, embedded modules and other wireless communications devices use a common technology standard to operate on different operators’ networks, as long as these devices and networks support the standard. The standard is published by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) which is responsible for global wireless standards.

The first generation, 1G, was voice only with a maximum speed of 2.4 Kbps. 2G added in SMS and MMS and was said to get up to 384 Kbps. Data capabilities, video calling, and mobile internet were the big features that came with 3G as well as a maximum speed of 2 Mbps. 4G, also called LTE, increased the speed to 100 Mbps to support the demand for high speeds, such as gaming, HD mobile TV and video conferencing.

With 5G, the standard is splitting into two branches. The first is consumer devices with the promise of significantly faster data rates and ultra-low latency. The second is connected objects with a focus on low power usage and smaller bandwidth usage. In both cases, high connection density is a focus as the number of connected devices is growing exponentially.

What are the implications of 2G/3G networks being turned off?

2G/3G networks are being retired around the world to streamline operation costs and allow for the radio spectrum to be reused for newer generations. As 2G/3G networks are turned off, one of the concerns is the ability to transition devices to 4G/5G networks. Module, radios and other technologies that were designed to support the earlier generations do not support 4G/5G networks. Some companies planned for this transition by providing an upgrade path, while other companies require a new design to make use of the network capabilities.

Who Can Manage Connectivity?

What is a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO)?

A mobile virtual network operator or MVNO is a wireless communications service provider. At the lowest level, a “light MVNO” owns no infrastructure and resells operator SIM cards with their own branding. At the highest level, a “full MVNO” owns a complete core network, but no radio towers, and manages their connectivity. Sierra Wireless is an example of a full MVNO.

How does an MVNO work?

A mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) is a reseller for wireless communications services. An MVNO leases wireless capacity (in effect, purchases “minutes”) from a third-party mobile network operator (MNO) at wholesale prices and resells it under its own business brand.

What is an MNO (Mobile Network Operator) and what is the difference between an MNO and an MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator)?

An MNO owns the radio spectrum license from the government or regulatory governing body and owns the wireless infrastructure that provides services. This means it also controls who can use its radio network.

A MVNO does not own a wireless network infrastructure, but has an agreement with a wireless service provider or mobile network operator (MNO) to use their network to provide services to its clients.

What Technology Makes up Connectivity?

What is LTE (Long-term Evolution)?

LTE is the name of a high-speed wireless communications technology standard for mobile devices. Often referred to as 4G LTE, it increases speed and capacity compared to previous 3G technology standards.

What is LPWA (Low-Power Wide-Area)?

LPWA (sometimes called mobile IoT) networking technologies transmit data at slower rates than other cellular technologies. However, LPWA technologies also cost less, use less power, have better wireless coverage inside buildings, underground and in rural areas, and can transmit data to more devices in a condensed area than other cellular technologies.

This makes LPWA perfect for many IoT applications where the amount of data that needs to be transmitted is minimal, such as applications for  asset tracking and the monitoring and management of smart home batteries, smart wheelchairs or smart lockers. There are two LPWA technologies, Long-Term Evolution for Machines (LTE-M, also known as eMTC) and Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT).

What is LTE-M (Long Term Evolution for Machines)?

LTE-M, sometimes also referred to as LTE Cat-M1 or enhanced machine-type communication (eMTC), is a 3GPP LPWA technology standard that provides data transmission rates of up to 350kbps, making it ideal for voice, roaming, and other real-time fixed or mobile IoT applications.

What is NB-IoT (Narrowband Internet of Things)?

NB-IoT, sometimes also referred to as NB1 or Cat-M1 is a 3GPP LPWA technology standard that can transmit data at rates up to 65kbps, making it more well-suited for agricultural, smart metering or other static sensor IoT applications.

The IoT and the technologies that support it will continue to be a source of new standards, devices, software and IT solutions, which means there will always be new terms to define. It’s also important to note a couple key terms that fall outside the realm of technical cellular protocols and focus on what we’re all after from IoT applications:  data.

What is an APN (Access Point Name)?

Simply put, an APN is a custom cellular network setup. It is mainly used to secure connectivity between a wireless device and the customer’s infrastructure, or to ease reachability of field devices from the server side. Some APN solutions, like Sierra Wireless’ new private APN, offer flexibility and additional security and enable customers to quickly deploy applications by building a single APN that can translate into multiple private APNs on the core network.

How does Sierra Wireless’ new global Private APN work?

Sierra Wireless’ new private APN solution allows specific configurations to be done in the cloud rather than touching the device. Simplified staging then provides seamless flexibility and security. A unique edge configuration allows customers to build a truly global SKU, as well as a powerful cloud configuration to allow the segregation of the customers’ device and SIM fleet to meet both local regulations and/or solution specific requirements.

What is a SIM?

In cellular-connected devices, the SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) contains the credentials or subscription needed to access the service of a particular MNO (Mobile Network Operator) or MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator). SIMs can have multiple form factors: plastic card (a.k.a. 1FF) with a chip that can be detached (2FF/3FF/4FF), solderable on a device’s board (MFF2), or even smaller form factors, directly embedded into the radio module. Since the beginning of GSM, the SIM has been the property of the MNO or the MVNO, creating a lock-in effect. There is a permanent relationship with the network carrier since the SIM won’t work with the subscriptions of other carriers. If you want to change your carrier, you have to change the SIM, too.

What are the different types of SIMs?

Note: Sierra is a member of the GSMA, and as such, is aligned with GSMA terminologies.

There are generally three different types of SIMs:

  • SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) defines the original secure standalone physical entity used to authenticate devices onto network. It is available as a plastic, plug-in card in different standardized formats (2FF/3FF/4FF) to be inserted in a socket or as a solder down component in different format (standard MFF2 or more proprietary smaller packages such as DFN6 or CSP). The version selected – consumer, industrial or automotive grade – is based on the application.
  • eSIM (embedded SIM) is a SIM, as defined previously, which supports Remote SIM Provisioning technology. Two categories of eSIM have been defined by the standard. The most common one is Consumer eSIM that targets consumer devices with a provisioning mechanism involving end user interaction. The second one, M2M eSIM, targets business-to-business operations and is used by Sierra. Note: eSIM and eUICC are synonymous.
  • iSIM (integrated SIM) is the latest evolution of SIM technology where the SIM is embedded on the device’s system-on-a-chip (SoC). It can be seen as the natural evolution for SIM cards in the silicon industry allowing the smallest footprint (iSIM footprint being virtually zero) with a major evolution of the factory provisioning mechanism. Latest iSIM solutions, thanks to major progress on security, are supporting Remote SIM Provisioning.

What are the different types of SIMs used for roaming?

Local SIM is owned by an MNO (defined above). It can only register in its home country, on the MNO’s radio network. It is single-IMSI (identity), single-network.

Roaming SIM is owned either by an MVNO or an MNO from a different country. It can register on a set list of partner networks (also known as roaming). It is single-IMSI, multi-network.

Smart SIM, a Sierra Wireless product, embeds multiple IMSIs and can access many networks all around the world. Unlike other SIMs, the Smart SIM runs an embedded application that monitors connectivity and repairs it if it breaks. It is multi-IMSI, multi-network.

Device Compatibility

What are the different types of certifications and why are they needed?

There are different types of device certifications. Some certifications are required on a regional basis, some by a specific country, while others may be required by industries or governments.

As an example, in North America the following are certification requirements for the host device deployed with Sierra Smart Connectivity SIM:

  • Canada: ISED, PTCRB

The certification requirements for the host device deployed with Sierra ECC SIM in North America are:

  • Canada: ISED, PTCRB, Rogers

What is spectrum and what are the different types of spectrum bands?

Radio spectrum is used to carry information wirelessly for a vast number of everyday services and is divided into frequency bands, which are allocated to certain services. For example, Band 14 is wireless spectrum used for the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN), a dedicated high-speed broadband network being built and managed by  FirstNet™ for first responders and other public safety professionals in the USA. Band 14 uses spectrum in the 700 MHz band.

Lower frequency bands tend to have relatively poor capacity capabilities because this spectrum is in limited supply, however it provides wider coverage because it can penetrate objects and thus travel further, including inside buildings. In contrast, higher frequency bands tend to have greater capacity because there is a larger supply of high frequency spectrum which allows more information to be carried, however there is usually less coverage as the signals are weakened or even stopped by obstacles such as buildings.

Licensed spectrum

Licensed spectrum encompasses a range of technologies with enough power to cover a relatively wide area and makes up the vast majority of spectrum. National regulators control access to this spectrum through a licensing framework allowing them to grant an organisation (such as mobile operators, TV and radio broadcasters, emergency services) the exclusive rights to use a certain frequency band in certain areas and at certain times. This ensures a quality of service can be guaranteed and if any other entity uses the licensed frequency band, or causes interference to it, the issue can be mitigated easily.

Unlicensed spectrum

Unlicensed frequency bands have more limited applications and are designated for specific types of use. The most notable examples of ‘unlicensed’ technologies are Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, which both operate in the 2.4 GHz band. The reason these bands are unlicensed is because the technologies used must operate at low-power levels, meaning they can only cover short distances.

Where Can I Learn More About IoT Connectivity?

The white papers, eBooks, webinars, blogs and reports below can provide you with more details on IoT connectivity services and related technologies, including:

Start with Sierra by  contacting us directly to talk about your IoT connectivity needs, and how our  Smart ConnectivityEnhanced Carrier Connectivity, and other  IoT connectivity services can help you unlock value in today’s connected economy.

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