Polynesians crossed the Pacific Ocean and discovered Hawaii 1500 years ago, where they invented surfing and hula dancing long before Columbus ever crossed the Atlantic. They brought along their dogs, pigs, and chickens, but they didn’t bring mosquitos. Sadly, mosquitos did eventually arrive in the bilge water of merchant shipping. But for 1300 years, people got to live in a tropical paradise with great weather, great seafood, no alarm clocks, and no mosquitos. If you were going to live out beyond the edge of mainstream civilization, Hawaii was the place to do it.

The world has changed since then. As a data communications professional I can’t help noticing that expanding the network edge never seems to take me to an isolated tropical paradise where every day is Saturday, the surf is up, and the bugs don’t bite. Instead, I tend to find myself dealing with hostile environmental conditions, wide temperature extremes, and a lack of easy access to electrical and Ethernet infrastructure.

And that’s why I’m excited about some of the new data networking technologies that are currently coming online. Running power out to remote locations, for example, is becoming increasingly unnecessary. Communications technology is making enormous strides in reducing the need for power, with some of the most remarkable gains occurring in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0.

Reaching Distant Destinations

When coupled with sensible system design, like store and forward reporting, many technologies are attaining viable micro-power status. Add so-called “lifetime” batteries like the bulky but tried and true nickel-iron design, along with some power harnessing techniques like solar panels, and you’ve got the ability to establish self-powered wireless devices and local-area networks (LANs) just about anywhere the sun rises in the morning.

You need rugged equipment, of course. Data networking in the safe, climate-controlled IT closet shares much of the same basic technology and many of the same chipsets with real-world machine-to-machine (M2M) networking. But when you’re monitoring a pipeline in the desert or supplying data to digital traffic signage during a Minnesota blizzard, you won’t find the right equipment in an office store.

Fortunately, manufacturers have been responding to the need for ruggedized networking equipment, and it’s easy to find industrial-grade versions of everything you require. Be sure to use devices that have the built-in processing power to support modern security standards, of course.

So how do these self-powered devices and LANs connect to the Internet? For many applications, the costs associated with running cable out to the site would make the project impractical. And cable is hardly going to be useful in a mobile application.

That’s where cellular data networking steps into the picture. A cellular router can provide Internet connections anywhere there’s cellular service. Currently, the legacy 2G cellular systems are good enough for simple supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and M2M applications, and 2G will continue to have a big share of the M2M traffic for some time to come. It has lower hardware costs, and as customers migrate to 4G LTE it’s quite possible that some service providers will lower their 2G M2M rates to keep the excess capacity on their legacy networks profitable as they make the transition to 4G LTE. That’s already happening with some prepaid consumer plans. If you don’t need much bandwidth and you’re working with modules that have short lifecycles, perhaps 18 months or so, 2G cellular M2M networking can still be a very attractive solution.

The 4G Future

But 2G cellular won’t be available forever. The future is 4G LTE. In North America, Verizon expects to upgrade its entire network to 4G LTE by the end of 2013. AT&T’s 4G LTE network should be complete not long after that, and AT&T expects to pull the plug on its 2G network as soon as 2017.

People won’t transition to 4G LTE overnight. Prices for 4G LTE modules have been steadily dropping, but they’re still in the $80 to $120 range. That makes them significantly more expensive than the earlier technologies and will slow the rollout of 4G LTE in cost-sensitive apps. So although operators will sunset their 2G networks very soon, 3G will remain an option.

In the end, though, 4G LTE will prevail, thanks to both its low latency (a fraction of 3G, typically under 25 ms) and its high bandwidth. Low latency makes 4G LTE much more M2M-friendly for supervisory control applications. Its high bandwidth will make it possible to add video to any M2M application, even if it’s only used sparingly. (By increasing the amount of data that is being transmitted, video naturally increases the size of your cellular bill.) Whether it’s used for security, diagnostics, or access control, video will enhance many existing M2M apps and create opportunities for the creation of entirely new M2M apps.  

With 4G LTE right around the corner, it’s time to start planning for it. If you’re about to make some remote wireless installations, my recommendation is to install 4G LTE now and absorb the extra hardware costs. You can always throttle back to 2G/3G while you wait for 4G LTE to become available at your desired locations. Then you won’t have to waste time and money upgrading everything later on. Instead, you could take a trip to Hawaii.

Mike Fahrion, director of product management at B&B Electronics, has more than 20 years of design and application experience overseeing M2M connectivity solutions for wireless and wired networks. He also is author of the eConnections newsletter.