What You Need to Know About LTE-M for Embedded Devices
The term “LTE” is certainly familiar to anyone following mobile connectivity over the years. For those operating in the embedded space, however, a technology called LTE-M is revolutionizing how the Internet of Things (IoT) and other connected devices can operate across a wide range of industries. Here are a few facts about this burgeoning technology and its present and future impact on the embedded environment.
What is LTE?
LTE is somewhat confusing. As cell phone infrastructure and cellular IoT were being implemented, it was clear that meeting true 4G standards was posing a significant challenge. Furthermore, network advances were leading to speeds comparable to “true” 4G. Due to this and marketing pressure, the concept of 4G LTE emerged, as the speeds attained far surpassed those of 3G technology. LTE-M shares plenty in common with LTE, but it’s better thought of as a 4G technology, and the “LTE” in its name is largely used for marketing purposes.
Not Using 5G Technology?
Just as the rollout to 4G was a bit more complicated than originally anticipated, the move to 5G is somewhat confusing as well. Many devices that advertise 5G capabilities are still largely based on 4G LTE but with several advances enabling significantly faster connection speeds. Furthermore, 5G radio technology has a suite of advantages. LTE-M is similar; although it’s typically considered a 4G technology, it hosts several improvements over older 4G technologies.
Why Not Use Regular 4G and 5G?
Smartphones typically feature larger batteries and stronger battery life, meaning they can support power-hungry radios and other technology. In the embedded space, however, low power consumption is of the utmost importance, making a new type of connection worthwhile, especially in places where regular access to electricity is limited. In addition, embedded devices are often used in areas where towers aren’t particularly close, and a stable connection is typically preferable over the highest possible speeds. With the rapid growth of IoT devices and other embedded technologies, industries are happy to invest in embedded-focused technology.
It’s also worth noting that LTE-M’s simplified technology makes it significantly cheaper to produce. With the ever-growing size of today’s IoT solutions, cheaper radios can have a major impact on the bottom line.
What Are LTE-M’s Capabilities?
Today’s most commonly deployed LTE-M technology offers connection speeds of approximately 1 Mbit/s. Although future deployments are likely to offer speeds several times faster, a 1 Mbit/s connection far exceeds the demands of most embedded use cases. Furthermore, its low bandwidth of 1.4 MHz enables the efficient use of limited spectrum space, allowing users to install more devices without saturating the spectrum. With a latency of just 10 to 15 milliseconds, LTE-M is appropriate in cases where near-instant response times are necessary.
LTE-M fills an important gap in IoT technology. While LTE Cat 1 technology offers a download speed of up to 10 Mbit/s and upload speeds of 5 Mbit/s, it’s hampered by significantly higher latency, the need for two antennas, much higher power demands, and the potential need for up to 20 MHz of bandwidth. On the other end of the spectrum, NB-IoT, a competitor of sorts to LTE-M, offers far slower speeds and often seconds of latency, making it unusable for many deployments.
LTE-M for Logistics Management
Perhaps the clearest example where LTE-M can help businesses is in logistics management. Knowing where vehicles are located in real-time can enable servers to redirect routes on the fly, potentially saving a significant amount of money in fuel. Furthermore, shipping containers, armed with a GPS connection and LTE-M, can be tracked as they move, letting companies better project their shipping times and find ways to optimize their logistics procedures. Because of its low pricing and ability to work in areas where data connections are somewhat weak, LTE-M is a powerful tool.
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Useful Across the Healthcare Field
A powerful use case of LTE-M is bridge technology. The healthcare field heavily relies on both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connections, which both have significant limitations. LTE-M can serve as a backup or translation layer for these types of connections, enabling medical professionals to stay connected no matter where they’re located. Others in medicine are envisioning even more innovative uses. Placing LTE-M technology in medical devices, from pacemakers to prosthetics, can provide thorough data on device function and relevant patient activity.
Modern Farm Management
Farming, perhaps surprisingly, is a major consumer of new technology, especially when it comes to embedded devices. It’s also an ideal use case for LTE-M. Sensors located throughout a field can measure moisture levels and soil quality, and LTE-M, thanks to its low power consumption and excellent reliability in areas with less-than-ideal data connections, means farmers can expect a reliable connection.
Furthermore, farmers can track their tractors and other expensive equipment, making it easier to ensure optimal productivity. LTE-M is great for maintenance as well; knowing when a piece of equipment needs service can keep it in operation more often. Because farms cover such large areas, LTE-M is far easier to implement and use than Wi-Fi.
Enabling Smart Cities
When it comes to planning and management, embedded devices are changing cities in a big way. Armed with reliable LTE-M connections, cities can determine how busy their sidewalks and roads are in real-time, and logging and analyzing this data lets them optimally route vehicles and find places to prioritize pedestrian traffic. LTE-M eases bus management, and it can be used with sensors to monitor water quality and electrical grid performance. Wi-Fi is cumbersome and expensive to implement on the municipal scale; LTE-M serves as a one-stop solution for a wide range of use cases, connecting cities to powerful data analysis infrastructure.
LTE-M will evolve in the coming years, and it’s not the right technology for all embedded use cases. However, its combination of high performance with low cost and power consumption makes it the appropriate default option in the embedded sphere. As mobile data networks continue to expand across the globe, it’s projected that LTE-M will remain a valuable technology linchpin for the foreseeable future.