New IoT chip technologies – cutting out the middle man

Published on: 11th July 2018

The latest Internet of Things (IoT) technologies are now unlocking our visions of a seamless IoT connected system. We have reached a turning point. Recently launched low power cellular IoT chipsets provide functionality that means that we have an opportunity to take a fresh look at our approach to connecting products and providing services.

Currently, to connect our intelligent devices to the IoT, we are dependent on the presence of a local network on our phones, tablets or around our buildings, to receive the locally broadcast device data and relay it to and from the often cloud based remote host servers. We are dependent on our local or personal hardware to fulfil this intermediary step. Therefore we become reliant on user’s successfully connecting or pairing the target intelligent device to our hardware or local network in order to complete the connected system.

The new low power cellular IoT chipsets revolve around two new radio transmission methodologies: 4G LTE-M and NB-IoT. These methodologies have been developed to focus on serving the communications needs of the world of machines. The technology is broadly viewed as the next step towards 5G. NB-IoT is generally more suited for lower bandwidth signals, operating at lower data rates with lower associated costs. Typical applications include smart metering where there are infrequent updates from a fixed location. LTE-M has capabilities for higher bandwidth signals, including voice. It is more appropriate for mobile applications and supports location based services, which opens up opportunities for asset tracking functionality.

The new chipsets replace the current short range wireless capability in the silicon (e.g. Bluetooth or WiFi) with a direct cellular connection. This means that connected devices no longer need to be connected through a phone or added to a local network, and can now achieve a direct link to a remote host server. They have been specifically designed and optimised for low power consumption by careful control of power modes between broadcast events, falling back into ultra-low power consumption modes in the intervening periods to preserve energy and battery level. 

The network infrastructure to support 4G LTE-M and NB-IoT is currently being rolled out around the world. There is a rapid expansion of low power wide area networks with regional licenced spectrums to support the global development and deployment of low power cellular IoT.

The new architecture brings some key new features and characteristics which provide opportunities to revisit and redefine next generation connected products and user experiences:

Direct cellular link

The new architectures are no longer reliant on feeding the information through the intermediate hardware to the host server at intervals when there is known to be a local wireless connection. Information can now pass seamlessly from the device directly to the host server.

Removes the ‘middle man’

Removing the need for a local wireless connection to the device untethers users from the hardware, effectively removing the ‘middle man’. This reduces the hardware dependency, which can be a barrier to adoption. This improved connectivity model is a key feature that is expected to facilitate greater adoption of IoT systems.    

Device asset tracking

The new architecture feeds the data through the cellular link to the host server, which then responds back through the cellular network to the user’s hardware. This provides options for the user to remotely track the location of their device through known cellular triangulation methods, instead of relying on energy-hungry GPS location services.

No longer reliant on Apps

As device data is fed back from the host server over the cellular network to the user hardware, there is an opportunity to use hardware platform independent web-portals to display the device data. This removes the need for platform based Apps to be installed on local hardware. It also removes the need for vendors to generate multiple platform App solutions (e.g. for Apple or Android) as part of their connected system. This is a clear benefit for vendors where App development is not their core business and is often viewed as a significant overhead in connected device development programmes.

Improved out of the box set-up

At first switch on the device will automatically be commissioned by the local cellular network and become active within a short time period. No pairing protocols are required by the user to set up the network connection. This provides the opportunity for a simpler experience, analogous to the first use of a mobile phone.

Compact packaging

The latest low power cellular chipsets have been designed to fit into compact packaging envelopes. These chipsets are now in packages comparable in size with short range wireless devices. The compact packaging, coupled with a step change improvement in power consumption, provides the opportunity for the new chipsets to be incorporated into accepted spatial product formats. It should be noted that the new technology does typically require an uprated antenna that is capable of broadcasting at a higher transmission power.

Data security

Removing the intermediate hardware means that the responsibility for data encryption over the cellular links moves to the device. This provides greater opportunities for tighter security control at the device, by removing the reliance on the App and mobile phone security software, which will be beneficial for some applications, but will also add more development effort in order to implement.

Managed service

The new communications architecture provides a key opportunity to take a fresh look at options to provide a managed service. As there is a constant ‘always on’ link between the device and the host server, it is possible to remotely situation monitor and asset track the device, providing the vendor an opportunity for a more widespread network of managed assets.

The hardware platforms to support this functionality are now being made commercially available. As always the key to designing effective connected systems is to consider how the functionality can be harnessed to provide a clear benefit to the end user. Therefore now is the time to reflect on development pipelines and consider how the characteristics of low power cellular technologies can inform the design of next generation connected systems.


Written by James May, Industrial & Commercial Sector Manager