The end of 2G is not necessarily breaking news. There have been articles circulating for the past few years about its pending demise. That always seemed like a future problem, but the time we’ve been expecting for a while has finally come: 2G is dying out.
What is 2G?
2G technology was originally designed for voice calling and using small amounts of data. It is famous for its reliability and stability; but infamous for being one of the slowest cellular connections available.
Over the years, this technology became the backbone of machine-to-machine (M2M) communications and I-IoT applications. This is because of the reliable and stable connectivity in otherwise hard-to-reach places (i.e. rural areas).
The low data throughput is not an issue for IoT applications since it doesn’t take high levels of connectivity to transmit small packages of data. Therefore, 2G is ideal for systems such as alarm installations in technical control rooms, remote monitoring of pump installations, remote reading of smart meters, or as track-and-recover beacons in cars.
Despite these great use cases, there is a major downside to 2G: Because 2G connectivity was first and foremost developed for consumer mobile phones, it utilises large amounts of bandwidth. This was not an issue when 2G was first introduced nearly 30 years ago, but no one could have imagined how popular personal mobile devices and IoT applications would become – let alone that every single device and sensor would have it’s own SIM card. Unsurprisingly, the bandwidth level in the frequency range allocated for 2G has almost reached its capacity.
KPN has announced that it will discontinue 2G on all of their networks by January 2022, while T-Mobile plans to make this switch much sooner (as early as November 2020 in the Netherlands). It is safe to say that other providers will shortly follow suit as higher bandwidth solutions are rolled out worldwide. And although there will be small amounts of 2G services reserved for those with devices unable to make calls or send texts via 4G (and eventually 5G), this seems to be the end of 2G as we know it.
Utility operators worldwide have been searching for a solution – a new standard to replace 2G as it faces an inevitable demise.
New Challenges Lead to New Solutions
As 5G becomes the new global standard for cellular devices, two new lower bandwidth solutions have also emerged alongside it: LTE-M (Long Term Evolution – Machines) and NB-IoT (Narrowband IoT).
These data-only connections are very promising for M2M communications and IoT applications. LTE-M and NB-IoT are both specifically designed to operate for M2M or IoT applications, they are both equipped with the same roaming standards (3GPP), and they are both hosted in the licensed spectrums.
Although similar in many ways, the differences between LTE-M and NB-IoT are clear: While NB-IoT is commonly used in logistical solutions such as track and trace or predictive maintenance, LTE-M has emerged as the front-runner for providing smart communication solutions to the utilities sector.
- NB-IoT is a message-based protocol. There is no open connection between the end node and the server. A message is “written” by the device and sent via the server. This can occur on fixed-time intervals or may be programmed to happen based on a specific trigger (i.e. a specific temperature is reached, water is turned on, solar panels are activated, or electric cars are plugged in). This results in a device that is inactive most of the time, making it a great solution for battery-powered devices but a real challenge for installations that require open or end-to-end communication.
- LTE-M is part of the 4G-LTE evolution – which has been commonplace in the industry for years. It is designed to be as similar to 2G as possible in terms of integration. It has a direct end-to-end connection between the end node and the server as well as open connections for internet protocols which are implemented on device level (i.e. mqtt and https). It also boasts large amounts of power and data-saving modes that help make it future proof and scalable for providers.
There is no going back to this outdated service, but moving forward to new technologies poses its own set of challenges.
The Challenge of Leaving 2G Behind
It’s clear that LTE-M is a better alternative to 2G, but transitioning to this solution is harder than it seems. It will require quite some effort and investment on behalf of providers to successfully and effectively make the switch. And the timeline to make it happen is only getting shorter.
The main challenge is that older 2G modems currently in place are not capable of communicating with LTE-M solutions. Simply putting new SIM cards in phones, machines, and sensors won’t work either. There are also a lot of connections currently operating on the 2G frequency that will need to be migrated to accept these new technology standards. This will require hardware upgrades or system replacement – all needing to happen before 2G connectivity is disabled.
Here to Make the Transition Easier
There are a few ways to tackle the upgrades required to enable LTE-M. In some cases, simply adding a new modem to an existing installation can be a good, easy solution. TWTG specialises in these retrofittable solutions – replacing only necessary hardware with upgraded technology and re-using current installations where possible. All while ensuring that current security and usability levels are maintained, or even improved.
In more complicated cases, it can be a good opportunity to replace all existing hardware in order to increase functionality. Typically, the installation process alone is more expensive than the actual hardware installed. Therefore, it might also be time to review the complete installation if undergoing the pain-staking process anyway.
Despite having to upgrade or replace current hardware, there are huge upsides to making the transition from 2G to the newer solutions.
This technology is exciting for all major industries, but with the ever-expanding number of technologies available within wireless connectivities (i.e. Bluetooth, LoRa WAN, 5G, etc), we could argue that it is not as exciting for some industries as it is for others. However, if one industry should get excited about the potential opportunities – it’s the Utilities sector.
Some use cases previously solved with 2G will be replaced with higher bandwidth connections. One example would be existing electric meters, which are currently running on 2G or the equivalent CDMA communication back-haul. These meters may not be able to communicate with utility provider’s back-end systems for much longer without upgrading to LTE-M. There are dozens of other potential use cases like this in the utilities sector.
If the right steps are taken, the utilities industry could easily take full advantage of the disablement of 2G and the integration of LTE-M. TWTG has experience working with utility companies and is more than able to provide retrofitted solutions.