Planning ahead: Transitioning from 2G or 3G to LTE (Reality Check)
For years, 2G and 3G networks have provided businesses with appropriate connectivity — and ROI — for IoT applications. However, the cellular connectivity landscape is changing, as 2G and 3G will be phased out in favor of LTE technologies in the coming years. We are more than a year removed from the retirement of AT&T’s 2G network, and it is expected that the remaining North American carriers will be sunsetting their 2G and even their 3G networks over the next three to five years.
To successfully make this inevitable shift, businesses with IoT devices and applications need to determine which factors should dictate the timing of their transfer from 2G or 3G to LTE and have a clear, deliberate plan to minimize potential pain points.
Know your timeline
The expediency of your migration to LTE will be dependent upon when your mobile network operator (MNO) plans to sunset its 2G and 3G networks. Your carrier representative or connectivity provider will be able to provide all of the information you need regarding network sunset dates or network activation deadlines.
Some organizations are addressing the 2G and 3G phase-outs by switching to carriers with later sunset dates, but it must be realized that LTE is a “when,” not “if,” scenario. Once these 2G and 3G networks are gone, LTE categories will be the only available cellular options.
Opting to delay the inevitable by switching carriers creates more challenges than it solves: additional costs, training requirements, potential glitches, and other issues that can impact the bottom line and disrupt business only to have to endure a similar process a short time later to transition to LTE. Switching carriers to stay on legacy technology is not delaying the pain of migration as much as it is adding unnecessary cost and additional migration efforts in a relatively short period.
Further complicating the issue is that the carriers will likely enforce deadlines on the activation of new devices on 2G and 3G networks that will far precede their sunset dates. With that said, the migration to LTE may have to happen sooner than expected if an organization wishes to expand their IoT deployment.
With the introduction of LTE Cat 1 and low power LTE options such as Cat M1 and NB-IoT, which offer right-sized functionality at price points similar to 2G and 3G, many organizations are making the necessary transition now. By doing so, they will not only avoid the pain points of continuing with a network that will eventually go away, but they can also get a jump on the benefits of LTE.
Understand your needs
After establishing a timeline, it is crucial to map legacy devices to the appropriate use case and carrier-approved LTE alternative: Cat 1, Cat-M, and NB-IoT. Here are how some of the categories of LTE will be used in various applications:
- Tracking and Logistics – There are already many existing fleet and asset tracking M2M connections that exist as part of either 2G or 3G networks, and MNOs are looking to harvest spectrum they already own. Many logistical devices aren’t restricted by the same power limitations that devices in other LPWAN use cases have, meaning that battery life is not a key concern. Due to the mobile nature of these applications, Cat 1 or Cat-M are the best fit.
- Consumer Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWAN) – The market for consumer LPWAN will be driven primarily by wearables connected to a network by a Cat-M module. A number of LTE-compatible wearables have recently been introduced, and the market for standalone wearables is expected to develop significantly.
- Smart Grid – The main spending drivers on LPWAN in this market will be to cut costs, improve operational efficiency, and to introduce highly accurate customer billing. Due to its ability to support static assets with very low bandwidth requirements, NB-IoT will pick up the most connections in the smart grid area.
- Smart Agriculture – The 4G network footprint in most countries will not be able to support LPWAN connections in rural locations. This means smart agricultural devices and sensors will likely require private networks to support reliable device connectivity or an unlicensed LPWAN operator with sufficient rural coverage.
- Smart Buildings –The smart building market for LPWAN is dominated by unlicensed LPWAN. LoRa wide-area networks are particularly well suited for this area, given that inexpensive gateways can be purchased and installed in a building and full coverage can be easily achieved. This presents a great opportunity for hybrid LoRa to LTE solutions.
- Smart City – Similarly to Smart Grid use cases, the focus areas of these solutions are to cut costs and more cost-effectively manage a city’s infrastructure and assets. Public entities are looking for ways to stretch their limited budget dollars and IoT solutions can go a long way to assist. These solutions tend to lend themselves well to NB-IoT and unlicensed LPWAN, or possibly a hybrid of both
Transitions can be daunting — and make no mistake, any major change will have bumps in the road — but why more bumps if it is not necessary? By creating a transition timeline and determining the LTE technology that best suits an organization’s needs, the migration to LTE can be less challenging. The time to start preparing for the migration is sooner than later – if not right away.