Businesses in rural and regional Australia arguably have the most to gain from IoT, but consistent connectivity between assets has been a longstanding challenge, so one company is looking to combine 4G towers and satellites to provide the access they need.

Australian mobile satellite solutions company Pivotel Group has launched ‘ecoSphere by Pivotel’, and represents the first union of 4G and satellite technologies to solve the communication and connectivity needs of the resources and agricultural industries.

ecoSphere promises long-range, secure video, data, tracking and monitoring connections to assets such as gates, pumps, machinery, and employees dispersed across rural properties.

It does this within a private network that allows a business’s resources to connect with each other even when the external internet connection is down.

Sensors installed on equipment placed around a property communicate to the homestead or office via 4G network towers with strategically placed on the property.

These towers have been activated with the LTE-M (Long Term Evolution for Machines) transmission standard for machine-to-machine communications, and are solar and battery-powered, ensuring uninterrupted on-property service independent of the power grid.

The same technology can also be deployed on mine sites, giving operators constant visibility of their assets through advanced field management software systems.

Pivotel Group’s CEO Peter Bolger spoke with IoT Hub about this latest offering, and the genesis behind its creation.

The company has long provided satellite communications for video, voice and data for rural Australia, but a conference attended by Bolger a few years ago that touted the benefits of LTE-M opened his eyes to the opportunities that such a low-power, long range connectivity standard could provide.

“It dawned on me at the time that Pivotel’s solutions needed to be a combination of satellite and the LTE-M standard going forward,” he said.

“So we started doing a lot more work and investigation around LTE-M. LTE and LTE-M can coexist on the same base station, so it became very obvious to use those technologies together, to provide low-power, long-range connectivity for IoT devices as well as support high-speed data for video surveillance, for example.”

In 2016, Pivotel started performing installations and testing of LTE-M enabled base stations within its own network, and towards the end of the year started its first customer deployment of six base stations at an unnamed Australian mine site.

How will 4G and satellite coexist?

Traditional satellite M2M communication is a one-to-one relationship – each connected device talks to the satellite with its own dedicated link.

Yager quickly realised that as the expectation for millions of devices across rural Australia to be connected grows, it was simply not viable to use satellite M2M for each of them.

“When you’ve got a density of ‘things’ that you want to monitor, control, or track, which could be 50 terminals that could be serviced by a radio base station, using that base station represents the most cost-effective way to provide the connectivity service,” he said.

“Satellite connectivity tends to be point-to-point, which is great for very remote ‘things’, but that sort of service on an individual basis tends to be quite expensive compared to using a base station.

“So the way we see it working is that when a customer has a high density of things, we’ll deploy the ground infrastructure, and when they have a low density, then we’d use satellite.”

Why LTE-M?

Yager said that while Pivotel is keeping an eye on the progress of other low-power wide area network solutions like LoRaWAN, it chose the LTE-M and Narrowband IoT standard to as the IoT connectivity enabler of choice for a simple reason.

“The reason we’ve gone for LTE-M is its ability to coexist on a radio base station, so all of the mobile base stations around the world will have a simple firmware upgrade on their base stations, which will enable support for both LTE and LTE-M,” he explained.

“This means there will be a massive market turned on at the flick of a switch for LTE-M, and scale is going to drive cost.

“We believe the endgame will be dominated by the LTE-M standard, which is why we’ve gotten onto that, but there will likely be niche markets where the other standards will fill out.”

He also said that LTE-M’s occupation of licensed spectrum – compared to other LPWAN technologies that use unlicensed spectrum – give rural users piece of mind that the risk of interference is minimised.

“In very remote areas, there aren’t a lot of interference sources anyway, so you could argue what the advantage is [with LTE-M],” he said.

“But the thing is, rural businesses just don’t need someone coming in and cause interference in the public bands, from someone with a mobile phone trying to connect onto a Wi-Fi network and is using capacity, for example.

“So we are going to be using licensed spectrum. While the technology can work in unlicensed bands, using licensed spectrum gives us the ability to manage the quality of service that you can’t strictly control when it’s unlicensed.”