An exclusive article by Bernie Brode, Nanotech Product Researcher at Microscopic Machines.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen plenty of headlines relating to the 5G network – there are concerns about foreign ownership of the infrastructure that underpins it, as well as the potential security hazards of the emerging technology. What we may have missed amid this speculation is that this decade will bring an equally seismic shift in the way that IoT devices interact – the end of 2G and 3G. Major networks in the U.S. are beginning to sunset these relatively antiquated networks in favor of 4G long-term evolution (LTE) technologies.
It might seem strange to hear about 2G, in particular, because most of us haven’t used the network since 2017, when AT&T removed it from their carrier network. Unfortunately, plenty of IoT devices still use the network, and even more use 3G. Even if your smartphone doesn’t use one of these networks, many other devices do. That means that we need to prepare for the upcoming transition.
In this article, we’ll look at the challenges posed by the impending end of 2G and 3G and what companies can do to prepare themselves.
Losing the 2G and 3G networks might not pose much of a challenge when it comes to using your smartphone, but many end-to-end IoT solutions still use these networks. A striking example of this came in 2017, just after AT&T switched off their 2G network. Within hours, 70 percent of San Francisco’s buses and trains disappeared from the NextMuni system map, which tracks vehicle locations in real-time and predicts arrival times. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) endured weeks of mounting public pressure while it attempted to upgrade its legacy monitoring devices, which had been using 2G.
The issue here might go far beyond public embarrassment, however. Many of the legacy IoT devices which use 2G and 3G networks represent significant assets for the companies that have deployed them – in the sense that your company might have a significant amount of capital tied up in these devices. It will be expensive to replace them.
Last but definitely not least, losing 2G and 3G networks might be actively dangerous. Given that plans to discontinue these networks have been public since 2014, we should hope that companies using IoT devices in critical functions – managing power plants, for instance – have had plans in place for some years now. But if you suspect that your company might be one of those which is using IoT devices in such crucial applications, this is all the more reason to work through the checklist below.
Prepare Your Networks
The way in which your organization handles this transition will be unique to you. It may be that there are IoT devices deployed in very unusual applications, for instance, or it may be that the transition forces you to fundamentally rethink the way that you are using the IoT. For most organizations, however, there will be three major steps in the transition process.
1. Audit Your Systems
First and foremost, you will need to understand how and where your organization relies on the IoT and how this is currently implemented. At this point, it can be useful to look at a real life case study in order to ensure that you are not overlooking legacy systems that are easy to forget about.
During this audit, you will likely encounter an issue that many organizations report as the most difficult to work around – that in many IoT devices, the network used is an essential and unchangeable part of the device. Because of this, in some cases it is impossible to “upgrade” many IoT devices in any reasonable way, and organizations will be forced to replace them.
2. Evaluate Your IoT Needs
At this point, you will need to make a fair assessment of your IoT needs. It’s likely that, if you have devices which are old enough to use 2G in particular, they are by now an integral part of the way that your IT systems as a whole function. As such, most organizations will look to replicate their IoT systems, albeit using more modern networking protocols.
At this point, you will have two options. You can either put in place a dedicated network – one that you design and administer – or upgrade all devices to use public 4G LTE technology. Which of these options you choose will depend, above all else, on the size of your IoT networks and the bandwidth required. Companies that have highly distributed IoT networks that need high bandwidth should look to invest in the upgrade to 4G; those who oversee a more spatially delimited system might find it more effective to build their own networks.
3. Future Proofing
Finally, as you design new IoT networks that will continue to work after 2G and 3G are long gone, make sure to design for the future. It’s important to recognize that 4G will, in its turn, be replaced as well, and you will need to have plans in place to deal with this.
The immediate replacement – 5G – will pose no great challenge, since it has been designed to use the connectivity interfaces. This means that, at such point as it becomes necessary, organizations will be able to swap out 4G devices for those running 5G.
Further developments might not be so easy and are at present difficult to predict. In practice, this means that all the changes and upgrades you make to your IoT network as part of the current transition should be well documented so that the eventual shift to 6G can be as smooth as possible.
The Bottom Line
It’s important to recognize that these issues are not speculative – this transition is happening now. Your company needs to take it seriously. Just as broadband IoT took time to overtake 2G and 3G as a networking interface, this change might be all but invisible until it’s upon us. But by then, it might be too late.