Permanent Roaming: The Dirty Little Secret In Cellular IoT Connectivity.
What you need to know for global IoT projects.
Traditionally, internet-enabled devices have shipped to consumers without a built-in internet connection, leaving the task of connecting the device through a service provider to the user. With IoT, however, this is no longer a practical solution.
Because IoT devices are shipped all across the world — and potentially change location even after they’ve reached a starting destination — the importance of global connectivity at the manufacturing level is growing within the IoT industry. Permanent roaming — while still new within the telecom industry — has the potential to bridge the gap between the needs of IoT and the methods of traditional connectivity.
Permanent roaming gives devices the ability to use data internationally without restriction. However, due to a lack of clarity and regulations regarding IoT connectivity, there are still significant limitations to most connectivity solutions.
The limitations of traditional connectivity.
Unfortunately, the traditional telecom industry was never designed to support IoT, and the consequences of this can be felt in several areas. From regulations to business practices, down to the options most connectivity providers offer to their customers, the market is generally geared towards mobile devices like smartphones and tablets — not IoT projects. As you can probably guess — or may have even experienced yourself — the needs of smartphone users are vastly different than those of IoT systems.
If your IoT project is local to a specific area, this might not be an issue for you; by working with local providers and creating IoT-specific contracts, you can often reasonably meet your IoT needs.
Global IoT projects, on the other hand, need something much more substantial.
As it is now with current standard practices and regulation requirements, a SIM card can typically remain outside of its home network for 30 to 45 days before being required to ‘return home’. Otherwise, the SIM will lose its ability to connect to the roaming network, leaving the device — and more importantly, the device’s owner — without a long-term roaming solution.
Roaming Intended For Travel, Not IoT
The reason that roaming contracts only work for short stretches of time is that they are intended for devices traveling to — and returning from — different countries, not devices being deployed across borders permanently. Roaming services were meant to be for people on vacation, individuals taking business trips, and so on.
Even if someone did happen to stay in a foreign location past the 45-day mark, they have the option to purchase a local SIM, use it for the duration of their trip, and cancel it once they make their way back home.
This solution doesn’t translate to IoT devices, however, which may start in one country and end up in another, with no plans of returning to their starting point. And switching out a device’s SIM every time it goes to another location — for all of the devices within an IoT system — is impractical, and in most cases downright impossible.
A 2017 report by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) outlining the international roaming guidelines for mobile devices highlights the need for regulation when it comes to roaming in the IoT/M2M industry. The regulations surrounding network switching and number portability are also in need of updating.
When it comes to regulating price, the ITU relies on national guidelines to define the boundaries and conditions for roaming IoT devices — which, as you would expect, has resulted in conflicting and complicated laws across the world.
In Brazil, for example, permanent roaming is completely off-limits to international providers. In the EU, though, new regulations have just been passed that restrict providers from charging roaming fees for devices within the EU — assuming that the data usage is within reason — so long as the device spends the majority of any four-month period within their home network.
The result is a lot of confusion and difficulty for IoT projects in need of permanent, global connectivity.
The challenges of IoT connectivity.
For many IoT projects, roaming is a necessity, especially for large-scale systems. Current roaming regulations, however, are geared towards smartphones and tablets, leaving IoT projects with two major challenges:
Challenge 1: Global device deployment.
As mentioned, several IoT projects are global by nature. Devices may be permanently deployed across international borders, travel from country to country indefinitely, and so on. This means that the devices are never able to return to their home network to reset their roaming restrictions, resulting in devices being cut off from connectivity.
If an IoT project doesn’t realize the limitations of a provider’s roaming capabilities before negotiating their contract, it can have serious consequences for the longevity of the project. The best case scenario would be for the IoT project to either find a new provider altogether or to find a local one who could support their project within that specific region. Switching hundreds — possibly thousands — of mobile devices to another network, however, can be a long and tedious process.
And this doesn’t even take into account that an M2M network could span several countries — not just two. In this situation, the IoT company would be forced to make agreements with local connectivity providers in each of the countries with deployed devices. Relying on separate providers would decentralize their connectivity, however, making it much more difficult to manage the IoT project and utilize the combined traffic volume to obtain a better deal.
Challenge 2: Minimal access to deployed devices.
The second challenge is a lack of access to the IoT devices after they have been deployed. Part of the motivation behind deploying devices on a global scale is to have devices and resources in locations that a company wouldn’t be able to reach otherwise. This means that devices could be in remote or extreme areas that are difficult and time-consuming to reach.
In other cases, devices may be sold to customers, leaving the IoT company with limited options in terms of updating the device. The only way to do so would be to go to each customer directly and requiring a device to either be replaced or amended on site. Aside from being a logistical challenge, it also has the potential to be a PR nightmare, especially if the IoT product is in the hands of a broad customer base.
The limited amount of access to IoT devices after deployment means that changing SIM cards and providers on the go is a difficult — if not impossible — undertaking. The modern fix for this issue is to choose an eSIM solution to change operators on the go, but for reasons explained here this comes with its own set of complications. This means that there is a certain amount of pressure to pick the right provider the first time, adding to the challenge and complexity of launching an IoT project.
Alternatives to traditional connectivity.
Not all IoT projects require global connectivity, and in these cases, making contracts with local providers will more than likely meet your needs. However, for IoT projects that are looking to scale globally, there are alternatives.
Global connectivity providers.
Currently, there are a few providers that offer global connectivity geared towards IoT projects. These providers offer permanent roaming that spans most countries that an IoT system would be deployed in. This means that there would be no need for a device to return to its home network within a set timeframe, no need to negotiate contracts with local providers around the world, and no need to switch out SIM devices en masse.
Onomondo is one such provider, offering permanent roaming in most countries as a standard service. Onomondo also offers the ability to switch networks within each of these countries and has portable SIM keys that you can take with you to another operator, making it a much more flexible solution than most.
It’s important to make sure that a global provider offers permanent roaming in all of the countries that you foresee your project needing. Otherwise, you could end up back at square one.
Another option is to choose an LPWAN provider. LPWAN providers offer networks that are low frequency and low power. They’re designed to send small packages of data across long distances without using up too much power, which is the goal of most IoT projects. LORA and SigFox are popular examples of LPWAN providers.
The problem with LPWAN providers is that — because they are distinct from traditional telecom providers — they have their own restrictions, guidelines, and services. This means that someone looking to use LPWAN for their IoT project would need to conduct a substantial amount of independent research on the subject and providers before making a final decision.
Some of the restrictions of LPWAN include things like licensing, bandwidth restrictions due to unlicensed frequencies, and the need to develop your own infrastructure in most cases. Because LPWAN is still mostly untapped, IoT projects that choose to rely on it end up committing to large-scale development projects in order to make it work, or simply keep their IoT projects on the smaller side to minimize the resource investment.
Lastly, if you are a manufacturer of IoT devices and components, you could leave connectivity up to your customers. In this case, keeping devices connected would fall on consumers the same way that keeping their phone, tablet, or other smart devices connected does.
The issues with this, though, are pretty transparent. For one thing, it makes setting up your device more difficult and costly for your customers. It also segregates the overall experience of your product from a consumer’s point of view. With the product coming from one company and the connectivity provided from another, the relationship your customer has with the device is shared with the connectivity provider they choose and might also complicate other processes like support and security, effectively adding connectivity associated costs elsewhere in the organisation.
Not to mention that if keeping a device connected is not seen as a necessity to the end user, you could end up with a large portion of products never being connected to begin with.
The ideal choice for most global IoT projects is to choose a global connectivity provider, one that offers permanent roaming with a business model that is linked to the value generation of the IoT solution. Keeping your devices connected across the world is a top priority for many IoT systems.
Despite a lack of standardized regulation for IoT roaming, global providers like Onomondo are working to offer a solution that bridges the gap between traditional connectivity and the needs of IoT projects.