The IoT and its radiocommunications infrastructure

22 April 2014

Colin Long

Overview

Hardly a day passes without a new and exciting example of an emerging or future application of the Internet of Things.  Almost invariably, whether or not this aspect features or is mentioned, the communications medium supporting the application will be wireless.  Indeed, in the majority of cases, it would be impossible to achieve the ubiquitous connectivity and penetration required by the IoT without radio communications.

Different applications demand different types of spectrum, whether supporting short-range devices, or wide-area, home-area or personal networks, in each case fixed or mobile.  The relevant radio frequency may be licensable on a practically exclusive basis or be licence- exempt, but with licence-exempt (sometimes misleadingly called 'unlicensed') spectrum being required (a) not to cause interference to other users and (b) unprotected against interference from other users, some applications will be less suited to that kind of freely available disruptible spectrum than others.

Our Government has latched onto the tremendous potential of the IoT both for Society and industry and, with communications being the essential medium for the IoT, recognises the fundamental importance of spectrum, the underlying carrier. Through its Public Sector Spectrum Release Programme it aims to find and convert to commercial/civilian use a total 500 MHz, much of it suitable for mobile broadband and IoT applications.

Internationally the ITU, through its regular World Radio Conferences (the next is in 2015) is gradually allocating increasing amounts of spectrum to mobile data and other IoT-relevant applications. At a national (UK) level, Ofcom as the regulator for electronic communications, is working within, and in its own way helping to shape, such developments. I set out below a chart showing the principal radio frequencies currently available, or being considered as suitable, for IoT applications in the UK. 

The IoT - actual and potential UK radio frequency bands

Application

Band(s) – MHz/GHz

Licensed/licence-exempt

Availability

Issues

SRDs

412-414/422-424;

433

Licensed

Exempt

Now

SRDs/M2M, lower power WANs, telemetry

450-470

Likely licence-exempt

Potentially 2030

Existing IMT designation; limited capacity; competing demands; high costs of re-planning

Mobile/Fixed data

470-694

[Potentially both]

<2030

EU High Level Group on future use of UHF

Mobile/Fixed data

694-790

[Potentially both]

2018

Band Plan under development by EC/CEPT; High costs of moving DTT/PMSE; future White Spaces devices

SRDs, RFIDs, smart meters, HANs, displays, alarms, telematics

863-870 (esp. 868)

Exempt (may be licensable for higher duty-cycle)

Likely medium term

802.11ah standard

SRDs, smart meters/grids, mesh networks/cellular extension, retail displays

870-876/915-921

Exempt

Now

Require sharing

M2M, smart metering

900

Licensed

Now

Mobile data

2.3-2.4 GHz

To be licensed (UK spectrum release 2015-16)

LSA by 2015-2016

ECC Decision (EU Mandate) under development

Smart meters, street lighting, medical monitoring, displays

2.4-2.5 GHz (WiFi)

Exempt

Now

802.11 and Zigbee standards; coping with increasing speeds

Mobile data

3600-3800

Probable licensing

LSA by 2018-20

Sharing with, relocation/shielding of, earth stations

Intelligent transport systems

5 GHz (WiFi) - three bands [Potential 775 MHz]

Exempt

2016-2018

High priority for Ofcom; likely strong demand; need to facilitate sharing, prevent interference

Short range, high data rate; telematics

60 GHz (WiFi)

802.11ad standard


Developing and husbanding spectrum resources

Undoubtedly there will be competing demands for spectrum suitable for the IoT and these will include:

  • Security-sensitive applications such as public health and safety: in the main these require exclusive, uninterruptable bandwidth 
  • higher volume, capacity-hungry services: requiring adequate bandwidth, exclusive or shared;
  • low power, intermittent applications susceptible to spectrum sharing and dynamic access: e.g. smart metering, street lighting. 

The very low bit rates that are adequate for many machine-to-machine communications do not need to be accommodated on high bandwidth cellular data networks; though for an operator with an already sunk cost which has been fully depreciated in such a network, it may yet make sense to use such a network, e.g. Telefonica O2's proposed use of its 2G/GPRS for smart metering in the UK.

The IoT is also where the much-debated spectrum sharing techniques may come of age, as technology like Licensed Shared Access (LSA)/Dynamic Spectrum Access (DSA) will evolve to provide practical solutions.

There is a range of different legal and regulatory issues which are likely to arise in relation to the development of the IoT. In order of relative importance, these are likely to include:

  • the development and adoption of appropriate standards and the avoidance of standards-capture by particular companies or groups
  • intellectual property rights over essential technologies, applications, gateways and protocols and their licensing to the industry
  • award processes for radio frequencies, reconciling competing demands, interests of existing users v. new entrants, and the fairness of such awards
  • arrangements for fair, equitable and efficient sharing of spectrum, especially in WiFi bands
  • management and resolution of interference issues amongst users of IoT spectrum and adjacent users.

In general terms it seems probable that sufficient radio frequencies of the right quality for the purpose should gradually become available to meet different demands by communications providers and users in the IoT-based industries, but much work remains to be done by policy makers and regulators, as well as standards-setting bodies, on ensuring that it is released and utilised on a timely basis and in ways which maximise its efficient and productive deployment so as to be beneficial to the overall economy.