The cellular network is not new. Cell phones have been around for decades, and even high bandwidth data streaming has been commonplace for many years. That said, the last few years have seen a handful of exciting new developments in the world of cellular. These developments in cellular technologies are making it possible to use the established cellular network for a whole host of new applications.
Specifically, advances both in infrastructure and technology are giving rise to a new era of supply chain visibility tools built on the cellular-powered Internet of Things, or IoT. Today, cellular offers an unparalleled level of global ubiquity, performance, and cost-effectiveness, making it the superior choice for digital supply chain visibility applications. Below, we explain some of the key advances that have enabled this growth and made the cellular-powered IoT supply chain a reality.
To learn more, read our white paper, Constantly Connected: How Cellular is Enabling the Digital Supply Chain.
Global CoverageFirst, there is the issue of coverage. In the early days of cellular, service was strong only in dense urban areas. This meant that any cellular-based IoT tracking system would have been pretty ineffective for supply chain applications, since most shipments spend most of their routes outside of urban areas. But over the last few years, carriers have invested heavily in cellular infrastructure to support the burgeoning industrial IoT industry. According to a recent report from GSMA Intelligence, today 90% of the world’s populated areas have cellular coverage.
In addition to the physical infrastructure necessary to support the cellular network, carriers as well as governments have also done a lot to to improve access to those networks, so that customers of any network can easily “roam” while in areas covered by another network. The EU voted to abolish roaming charges in 2015, and similar policies have been implemented in China and other key areas. At the same time, in response to a global surge in demand for IoT products, carriers themselves have also sought to eliminate roaming charges, so that devices can stay connected as they move across coverage boundaries. To meet this huge market opportunity, international carriers have created mutual agreements that eliminate roaming charges and provide global coverage at a fixed monthly cost.
Thanks to these infrastructure developments, cellular-powered IoT devices can now depend on a reliable, global communications network. But of course, the infrastructure is only one side of the coin. To take advantage of this infrastructure, it was necessary to develop IoT devices that are optimized for supply chain tracking.
Device Battery LifeSpecifically, to make cellular IoT a viable option for supply chain visibility solutions, it was vital to develop tracking devices with dramatically improved battery life compared to existing cellular devices. Most commercial supply chains involve goods staying in transit for weeks or even months at a time, so for a tracker to be useful, it has to last. Developments in both hardware and communication tools have helped make it possible to build cellular devices that last for over six months on a single charge.
On the device side, manufacturers of cellular components have made tremendous improvements in power efficiency. Batteries have gotten smaller and more power dense, and cellular chipsets have become smaller and less complex. This means that devices using these new components have lower power consumption rates, and thus have a much longer device lifetime.
In addition, on the communication tools side, cellular companies have developed new communication protocols that are optimized for low-power IoT applications. Traditional cell networks optimized for phones required that devices communicate every few seconds with a tower, which consumed a great deal of energy. Today, carriers have optimized base station equipment and firmware for use by IoT devices, which transmit data much less frequently and have no need for a continuous connection. This means that IoT devices can utilize the same global network infrastructure as mobile phones, without being tied to phones’ power-heavy communication protocols.
Between global network infrastructure and long-lasting devices, cellular has come a long way. But of course, there is one more key factor that has helped make cellular-powered IoT solutions a feasible option for supply chain applications: cost.
Data Plan CostIn the past, cellular data plans were primarily designed for high-bandwidth smartphone activities, such as streaming video or downloading large files. Although this was great for consumers, it meant that there were very few options for low-cost, low-bandwidth data plans. While streaming video may require millions of bytes of data, transmitting a temperature or location reading takes only a few bytes. Plus, with countless devices spread out across a global supply chain, paying for individual data plans for each device would quickly become extremely expensive.
Fortunately, in response to growing demand for low-cost, low-bandwidth data plans for various IoT applications, carriers have begun to offer cost-effective small data plans (on the order of a 1MB or less) that can be pooled across many devices. So if a company has to monitor a hundred or even a thousand different shipments, each with its own tracking device, they can all operate under the same joint, low-cost 1MB data plan.