IoT Standards and Protocols Explained
For businesses, the transformative power of IoT is increasingly significant with the promise of improving operational efficiency and visibility, while reducing costs.
However, IoT does not come without risks and challenges. While concerns over security and data privacy continue to rise, the lack of IoT standards remains one of the biggest hurdles. The increasing number of legacy, single-vendor, and proprietary solutions cause problems with disparate systems, data silos and security gaps. As IoT successes become more dependent on seamless interoperability and data-sharing among different systems, we want to avoid the scenario of a fragmented market with numerous solutions that simply don’t work with each other.
What are Standards?
Before we continue our discussion on standards, let’s take a step back and clarify their definition.
According to the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), a standard is a “document, established by consensus and approved by a recognized body, that provides, for common and repeated use, rules, guidelines or characteristics for activities or their results, aimed at achievement of the optimum degree of order in a given context.”
Simply put, a standard is a published document that specifies a product’s functionality and verifies its quality. It establishes a transparent, consistent and universal understanding of a technology by eliminating inefficient variety in the marketplace. Standards, therefore, enhance compatibility and interoperability in product development, fuel global adoption, and production, and accelerate time-to-market.
To better illustrate the importance of standards, let’s look at light bulbs as a simple example. Nowadays, you can easily go to any store and buy any brand of light bulb, assuming that it is compatible with your lamp as the bulb base and threads have been standardized. This greatly boosts user demand, allowing manufacturers to ramp up their production and reduce costs leveraging economies of scale.
IoT Standards and Wireless Protocols
In the IoT realm, networking standards are hands down the most important. Standard protocols define rules and formats for setting up and managing IoT networks, along with how data are transmitted across these networks. Networking protocols can be categorized into multiple layers accordingly to the communication stack (i.e. OSI or TCP/IP model). In this article, we focus on the physical and network access protocols for data transfer from edge devices.
Even before IoT becomes a worldwide phenomenon, there have been a number of standardized wireless technologies that are widely acknowledged and adopted on a global scale. The most successful examples include Wi-Fi (based on IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n specifications for wireless local area networks), Zigbee (based on IEEE 802.15.4 specification for low-rate wireless personal networks) and GSM/UMTS/LTE (based on 2G/3G/4G mobile broadband standards developed by 3GPP).
However, these previously existing standards, are not optimized for a majority of large-scale IoT deployments that require interconnection of huge amounts of battery operated sensors (end nodes). Limited range and coverage, low penetration capability, power-hungry transmissions and high costs are factors that hamper their applicability in many use cases. By exactly filling these gaps, the arising group of low power wide area (LPWA) technologies are now taking over the IoT stage.
The problem is, most existing LPWA networks – typically the ones operating in the license-free spectrum – are proprietary solutions that do not implement a recognized industry-standard protocol. By making their technical specifications publicly available on a royalty-basis, many LPWAN providers are attempting to claim their technologies as “open standards.” Nevertheless, this is not really the case.
Strictly speaking, a standard – or let’s say an industry standard – must undergo a stringent evaluation process by an established Standards Development Organization (SDO). This guarantees the quality and credibility of the technology. Key global SDO examples include ETSI, IEEE, IETF, 3GPP, etc. So far, technologies that actually implement rigorous LPWA standards published by SDOs have been Narrowband-IoT/LTE-M/EC-GSM (standardized by 3GPP) and mioty (based on Low Throughput Networks - TS 103 357 specifications by ETSI).
Benefits of IoT Standards
So, why should you choose a standard protocol over a proprietary one? From an IoT user’s perspective, standardized communication solutions offer significant benefits in terms of:
- Guaranteed Quality and Credibility – IoT standards ensure that products and solutions are fit for their intended purposes. In other words, communication technologies that adhere to rigorous standards deliver high Quality-of-Service, robustness against interferences and industry-grade security to ensure reliable and secure transmission of massive IoT sensor data at the edge.
- Interoperability and Innovation Flexibility – Standardized communication protocols can be programmed on various commodity, off-the-shelf hardware (i.e. chipsets, gateways) to support multi-vendor solutions and the interconnection of heterogeneous devices. Beside promoting interoperability in the long run, this helps end users avoid commercial risks of vendor lock-in, whereby a single supplier retains total control over functionality design and future product/technology innovation.
- Global Scalability – Industrial users with worldwide operations want to adopt IoT connectivity that can be implemented across their global facilities. Standardized solutions function universally and help minimize installation complexity, thereby safeguarding long-term investment.
With a vast assortment of IoT connectivity solutions available on the market, choosing the right technology can determine the success of your digital transformation. By opting for an industry-standard IoT solution, you can secure the longevity and ROI of your IoT architecture by making it quality-assured, vendor-independent and scalable worldwide.
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