By Cindy Dubin, Field Technologies magazine
As carriers migrate from 2G to 4G, how do you need to adapt?
This year’s International Consumer Electronics Show hammered home the fact that 2012 is the year of 4G. The speeds possible with 4G are twice as fast as 3G and comparable to DSL connections. Analysts say that 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE), running at speeds of up to 40 Mbps by mid-2016, will usher in a new era of high-speed, data-intensive mobile applications for video communications, collaboration, and telecommuting.
4G is expected to have a significant impact in the realm of M2M (machine-to-machine) communications. More than 90% of current cellular M2M connections use 2G because the technology is mature and offers low-cost hardware and low-data usage. Most M2M applications running on 2G don’t need the bandwidth and speed associated with 4G — at least not yet. However, three trends are pushing M2M traffic toward 4G networks. First, carriers support more advanced networks. Second, 4G connectivity will enable greater mobility and highbandwidth streaming. And finally, 4G technology offers a robust connection for layered M2M applications.
For some, 4G connectivity seems an unnecessary upgrade for M2M applications that require just a few packets of information sent on a weekly or monthly basis, but this has not stopped carriers from pushing the migration. As wireless deployments continue to grow, carriers are faced with pressure to increase the capacity, bandwidth, and speed of their networks. And, with affordable 4G just over the horizon, the carriers are planning a gradual shift that almost certainly includes a 2G network shutdown in the 2020 to 2025 time frame, predicts Baden Wehmeyer, VP of technology, MiX Telematics.
AT&T is moving away from 2G and has announced support for 4G, with plans to double its coverage by the end of the year. Verizon Wireless announced plans to expand into 27 new markets, and improve 4G LTE coverage in 44 existing markets, blanketing two-thirds of the U.S. population. And, Sprint Nextel plans to have a handful of markets with LTE by the end of Q2.
While all of this may be good for some business-related mobile computing deployments, it could be a negative for companies using M2M. M2M deployments are typically low-data, and the technology they have deployed was built on 2G networks; therefore, so much of it will become obsolete and need to be replaced.
Some carriers are committed to continued 2G support. Consider T-Mobile, which does have plans to go to LTE in the long-term, but has publicly committed to longterm support for 2G. “T-Mobile is keeping 2G support for all M2M deployments,” says John Horn, president of RACO Wireless. “2G is here to stay for quite some time, and it is being focused almost exclusively for M2M.”
But other carriers are being pushed to share their transition plans with customers. “We have long maintained that the most important thing the carriers can do is provide clear, publicly stated direction about their plans and timelines for the 2G network, so stakeholders can plan accordingly,” says Alex Brisbourne, president and COO of KORE Telematics.
The Move To 4G Is Inevitable
Technology transitions do represent uncertainty for the early adapters, but they can also represent enhanced functionality. The Yankee Group predicts that, in the case of 4G and its impact on M2M, a more robust connection will allow M2M to evolve from supporting a single application to leveraging one connection for multiple uses.
If you’ve deployed an M2M solution, now might be a good time to evaluate how a transition from 2G to 4G will impact your company. “Each company’s situation will be different, but it is a good time to reevaluate all parts of the equation, such as the technology or even the carrier,” says John Hulbert, VP of product management for Novatel Wireless M2M Division.
Ultimately, the move to 4G is an inevitable one, so companies need to forecast capital and operating expenses, share these figures with shareholders and corporate governance teams, and make necessary preparations. “Folks would be remiss if they risk their business continuity in the hopes that a forced migration will be postponed or stayed by carriers,” says Brisbourne.
If the migration to 4G will ultimately be one that your company cannot afford, then the option may be to scale back current M2M operations or move to a carrier that will support 2G for the longer term. But, do not put off deploying M2M if you have not yet done so — and there is a good business reason to deploy it. If starting from scratch, consider a 3G module that has already achieved network certification, assuming it has a device lifespan expectation of at least five years. 3G offers higher speed and bandwidth than 2G and is still being supported by carriers.
Most new deployments of M2M will not be based on 2G technology, Hulbert is certain, particularly in the next 12 to 18 months, but rather on 4G LTE. However, there are some limitations in LTE coverage which could cause inconsistency across M2M deployments.
Another obstacle to 4G adoption is module cost. LTE modules currently sell in the $90 to $110 range, while industrial HSPA+ modules sell for half of that and WiMAX modules cost anywhere from $35 to $40. “As module costs come down for 4G, there will be an end point down the line for 2G,” says Horn. “2G simply won’t be here forever, so companies need to start putting together a longer-term migration strategy.”