Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is such a critical component of our lives and work that it’s no longer something we can leave to the tech experts. “We need to be informed about new technologies and developments so that we are part of the debate,” says Jansie Niehaus, Executive Director of the National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF).
IoT refers to “a system of interrelated, internet-connected objects that are able to collect and transfer data over a wireless network without human intervention”. There are many IoT scenarios that show clear benefits. Imagine parking spots (with sensors) that pass on data about availability to an application in the cloud (internet). Drivers can access the information to quickly find a parking space. Consider sensors in a greenhouse measuring temperature, humidity, pests, water etc. The embedded devices could monitor and manage conditions. For example, the temperature lowers and the system receives this information from the sensor, and then increases the temperature to the appropriate degrees centigrade without human interaction.
In an inventory environment, items with attached sensors would allow a system to track exactly where something is and if items are running out (and need to be topped up). The sensors would alert the system if an item is taken without permission. Data is gathered and analysed, providing real-time information to make decisions or to set off an automated response (as part of the networked system). So, an internet-connected borehole pump can be monitored to check that pump parts are working and to measure water level, for example. The sensors are set up so they only become active when there is a problem and then send through data to the network, which then creates alerts about the problem. A technician can then be sent out.
The types of sensors depend on need and environment. They include sensors that measure temperature, motion, moisture, air quality, and light. The data gathered from IoT environments can reduce operating costs, improve efficiencies, streamline operations, provide usage patterns and so on.
IoT networks use radio waves – these are also used for cellular telephony, radar, navigation, wireless networks, and to broadcast tv and radio. Radio spectrum can be divided into licensed and unlicensed bands. Licensed bands can only be used by the company that licenced and paid for it. Unlicensed bands are not exclusive but are regulated.
Items need to have readily available power sources – usually batteries – to be part of the IoT network ie to send and receive information. The aim of most IoT environments is to create a low power scenario so that the power source doesn’t need constant replacement.
“You need multiple years of service before changing a battery to justify ROI [Return on Investment],”Sean Laval, Executive: Solutions and Innovations, Sqwidnet
“IoT devices need to send a few bytes of data when an event happens which means they don’t use a lot of data. Only a small percentage of IoT devices require high data per month,” says Laval. Examples of the latter include cameras and data-intensive tracking applications for fleet management. He notes that “more than three quarters of IoT devices need less than 1Mb of
data per day”. With high data rates come high energy use and cost.
• At the top is 3G, 4G and 5G. These need a lot of power due to high data requirements. This is for high quality of service (QoS) such as for self-driving cars and cameras. These networks have national coverage.
• LTE-M is for slightly lower power consumption. It also offers national coverage for fairly high-powered devices and is good for fleet tracking and cameras.
• In the middle is NB-IoT which gives city coverage for battery-powered devices. A use case example is energy metering. NB-IoT is fairly expensive to deploy as its licenced spectrum. (NB-IoT falls under the 5G standard.)
• LoRaWAN is a proprietary technology. It’s for community or private networks for small messages. An example is a private network in a rural agricultural setting. These networks are not national in South Africa. It’s a good option for a network that supports years of battery life where you still want full control of the network.
• Sigfox is also a proprietary technology, designed for a really low-end IoT network which could involve billions of devices. It can create a global network of small messages. This is for the type of IoT environment which relates to monitoring and relaying really simple data: Did a door open? Did somebody walk into a room? Did the temperature go over a certain level? Did the asset move into a certain geofence (a virtual boundary of real-world area)?
The first-generation wireless network (1G) was developed in the 1980s. It supplied basic voice services using analog devices. From mid 80s through to the 90s, came the next generations of wireless networks – 2G and 3G. There was improved coverage and capacity. With 2G, the world saw the first digital standards.
Standards are verified by the ITU, a body that oversees networks globally. The standards ensure infrastructure compatibility with all the technologies involved ‘talking’ to the same network core. (The International Telecommunication Union – ITU – is a specialised agency of the United Nations that is responsible for ICT matters.)
The 3G wireless networks brought voice and other data activities: multimedia communications, texts and the internet. This standard needed to account for the great increase in people becoming connected, as well as new data activities. The 3G wireless networks also brought about the flexibility of working from anywhere.
With each new generation of wireless network, speed has increased dramatically. Consider that 3G was 2000 kbps to 4G at 100,000 kbps. The 4G networks are designed primarily for sending data using internet protocols (IP). The term ‘LTE’ is the standard associated with 4G. (The full name is ‘Long Term Evolution’.) This wireless network gave us true mobile broadband and marked the time of the smart phone.
The fifth-generation wireless network (5G) is already here, with even faster speeds (1-2 Gbps). It is ready to support smart cities, industrial automation, IoT, and more. But don’t get too comfortable because 6G is being developed. This generation includes new ways of optimising networks (for more bandwidth, coverage, and to connect everywhere) and green networks (for reducing energy use and using green sources of energy).
5G is a group of technology standards that support different use cases (or scenarios). Examples of standards that fall under this are: Enhanced mobile broadband (allowing 4G radio systems to be used with a 5G core network) and Massive Machine Type Communications (MTC) using low power so that smart sensor networks can communicate.
Work is also being done on technologies and standards for affordable broadband to cater to rural and underserved areas. (NB-IoT is one of the 5G technologies). The 5G use case scenarios need to support industry but there also needs to be social value. This includes medical care, transportation, the energy sector, and intelligent transport sectors.
“It requires that we work together ie we need public-private partnerships. This includes regulators, industry, the CSIR and government. We can then develop the social value working together for safer cities and public services, to improve the quality of people’s lives, and to build industry’s ecosystem and thus develop SA’s economy,” says Dr Fisseha Mekuria, Chief Researcher: Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Networked Systems and applications, Next Generation Enterprises and Institutions; and Head: CSIR Smart Spectrum team.
He further notes that ethics are key in the move to a networked digital society. An example is digital inclusion rather than only rich areas acquiring more bandwidth with rural areas being left behind.
Mekuria says it’s important to have a 5G testbed for developing innovative applications and that testbeds accelerate use case scenarios. Launched in Kenya in 2007, M-Pesa is a world-renowned mobile phone-based money transfer service and payments and micro-financing service. It’s an example of an application that started through experimentation in a testbed. (The
mobile operator had provided a testbed for developers to experiment with 3G technologies.)
The CSIR, with international collaborators, is building a 5G technology testbed. Although still under development, Mekuria says it’s being used to test some use cases, such as self-driving vehicles. The aim is to encourage innovators (such as university students) to come and develop 5G use cases, apps and services.
NB-IoT, Sigfox and LoRaWAN make up the majority of low power wide area (LPWA) networks today. Laval says that technologies that fall under LPWA address the same requirements: low cost, low power, long-range, reliability, and security. LPWA networks haven’t been available until recently. Essentially, you get national coverage similar to cellular network but at a low power consumption. It opens up a lot of applications that weren’t feasible before, such as water metering over a large geographical area.
Laval says that LPWA networks have come about because costs have come down, from core components to improved battery technology. Furthermore, there is now access to cloud infrastructure where different services are delivered over the internet.
The CSIR would like to see spectrum sharing and Mekuria is the leader of the team that developed the Smart Spectrum Toolbox. It was a 2020 NSTF-South32 winner for Innovation by a Corporate Organisation. It’s an innovative spectrum sharing and management system with a suite of technology products known as the CSIR Geo-Location Spectrum Database (GLSD). It provides a cloud interface service, designed to provide spectrum availability information to new entrant network operators.
It detects unused radio frequency spectrum areas in the Ultra High Frequency (UHF) bands. These identified spectrum white spaces are made available for broadband internet services, thus improving affordable digital connectivity. This process helps to accelerate the deployment of wireless ICT services, as well as providing impetus for the creation of SMMEs that deploy
network infrastructure and provide affordable broadband internet. The business model involves digital SMMEs, based in rural areas. These businesses would provide broadband internet services to rural and underserved communities using the CSIR Smart Spectrum Toolbox. Mekuria sees it as part of the solution to bridging the urban and rural divide with affordable and sustainable rural connectivity.
The CSIR are currently working on capacitating digital SMMEs (small, medium and micro enterprises) to provide broadband. TV spectrum is being used as a cheaper option but Mekuria says that 5G can be brought in later as the economy grows. While Sigfox has 93% coverage of the SA population, it means the coverage occurs where people live ie mainly urban areas. However, Sigfox can facilitate coverage in rural areas, says Laval. An initiative with the University of Johannesburg (UJ) involved Gwakwani village, Limpopo, where an IoT network has been deployed using solar power. This allows the UJ academics to monitor – from a distance – the borehole, safety and security at the creche, and equipment performance at the bakery.
Laval says that now UJ can pick up anomalies early enough. An example is when a pipe was blocked in the borehole, which would have caused the pump to seize. However, they caught it in time through visibility with IoT. Prof Jan Meyer, the academic lead of this project, has called it ‘Village 4.0’. The aim is to duplicate the concept in other villages around South Africa and Africa, says Laval. It can significantly enhance lives with a relatively low investment.
Laval says that Sigfox does cover some rural areas but this is based on demand and looked at on a case-by-case basis. As Sigfox is a commercial enterprise, the business case needs to work. He says that demand in rural areas is primarily driven by farming ie efficiency in agriculture and tracking livestock.
Mekuria believes that one of the most important 5G use cases is where we efficiently use natural and technological resources for the benefits of society to create a Smart City. Through IoT networks (as well as other networks), smart sensors can be embedded everywhere to collect data to create and optimise Smart Cities.
By optimising the use of resources (through data feedback and analysis), we can reduce costs. Furthermore, predicting demand allows for effective planning, and customising offerings enhances efficient delivery. Examples include smart power grids, traffic management, smart parking, utilities management etc.
Technology can also be used for harm, such as illegal surveillance and other privacy issues. Mekuria says that 5G is now being commercially rolled out in SA and globally. While it’s a global standard, technical regulations, business models, policy, and ethics of use are still in their infancy. He sees 5G and IoT and the associated technologies and skillsets as part of realising the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) vision.