Ready for future communications?

6 Jul 2023

Is your water network ready for future communications? 

From network monitoring and leakage detection to smart meters, mobile networks play an integral role in data connectivity and collection within the UK water industry. 

Through the use of Internet of Things (IoT) devices and machine-to-machine (M2M) communication, these networks enable the collection and transmission of data from various measuring instruments and transducers within the water network, enabling the ability to provide real-time monitoring, control and management capabilities. All vital for optimised network operation and achieving confidence in water

As an industry, we need to ensure we are ready to welcome the next generation of communications, or risk being left behind. With the ever-changing landscape across various network providers, we hope to provide guidance and insight through the following summary to prepare customers as they enter the strategic planning and investment processes for the coming years, with particular emphasis on OFWAT’s price review planning. 

We hope you find this a useful read as many Internet of Things (IoT) device fleets have either reached or are approaching their end-of-life window.    

Are you ready for 4G LTE-M? 

UK mobile network providers currently use four different ‘generations’ of mobile technology: 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G (though 5G is not yet used for water industry sensors) [ref. 1]. 

However, this situation is currently changing, with the sunset of 3G networks in the UK so that their frequencies can be re-used to provide 4G and 5G services: 

● Vodafone started its switch off in 2023 [ref. 2] 

● EE plans to start its switch off in early 2024 [ref. 3] 

● Three expects to switch off by the end of 2024 [ref. 4] 

● O2 has not yet announced any switch off plans 

Support for 2G is being retained for now, though the UK mobile network providers have indicated that they do not plan to offer 2G services beyond 2033 [ref. 5]. 

Why choose 4G LTE-M and what is it?

The 4G mobile networks primarily serve the needs of today’s mobile phone users and the data-hungry applications they use. But their needs differ from those of IoT devices such as the sensors used by the water industry, which require only modest data bandwidth but ultra-low power consumption to provide five-year battery life. 

Hence two variants of 4G exist to specifically cater to IoT devices: 

● 4G Category M1 or “LTE-M” 

● 4G Category NB1 or “NB-IoT” 

In the UK these two technologies are competing; O2 are deploying support for LTE-M [ref. 6], whilst Vodafone are deploying support for Narrowband Internet of Things (NB-IoT) [ref. 7]. EE and Three have not yet deployed or committed their support of either. 

What is LTE Cat-M1? 

LTE Cat-M1 is a Low-Power, Wide-Area Network (LP-WAN) designed specifically for purpose-built devices, like trackers or water meters, that transmit medium amounts of data over wide ranges. LTE Cat-M1 is a category of 4G long-term evolution (LTE) technology for machines (M). LTE-M is an abbreviated name for LTE Cat-M1. 

What is 4G Category NB1 or “NB-IoT”? 

This is also known as Narrowband Internet of Things and is a Low-Power Wide-Area Network (LP-WAN) technology that has been developed to enable a wide range of devices to be connected to the internet using existing mobile networks. It is a low power, narrowband technology that can support small amounts of 2-way data transmission. 

At Inflowmatix Ltd (a SUEZ owned company), the strategic decision to use 4G LTE-M rather than NB-IoT for our InflowSense™ high frequency (128 samples per second) pressure monitoring devices has been made due to its superior suitability for high-frequency measurements, as shown below. 

Exhibit 1 – Suitability Overview

FeatureLTE-MNB-IoT
Suitable for high-frequency pressure measurement (128 Hz)YesNo
Suitable for low-frequency pressure measurement  (15 minute)YesYes
Excellent efficiency and power consumptionYesYes
Data rate [ref. 8]                                           Up to 1 Mbit/sUp to 66 kbits/s
Daily data allowance                                         MegabytesKilobytes
UK network provider                                          O2 [ref. 6]Vodafone [ref. 7]

Exhibit 2 – Current UK 4G LTE-M Coverage

Our InflowSense™ devices will continue to support 2G as a fallback for locations where LTE-M is not yet available. 

With access to this real-time data, we aim to support our customers by reducing leakage and supply interruptions for their end customers and bring them closer to the industry ambition of a 50% reduction by 2050.

Why water companies should act now  

As customers consider their future IoT fleet requirements to optimise investment as part of their digital journey, clear consideration should be made to align with future mobile network changes. 

The impacts of not doing so (i.e. relying on 2G fallback as 3G is retired with no future 4G capability) will lead to higher operational expenditure through poor mobile network connectivity and loss of coverage in certain areas in addition to a higher rate of battery usage.

References

1. OFCOM, Switching off the UK’s 3G mobile networks: what you need to know:

https://www.ofcom.org.uk/phones-telecoms-and-internet/advice-for-consumers/advice/3g-switch-off

2. Vodafone, 3G switch-off:

https://www.vodafone.co.uk/help-and-information/3g-switch-off

3. EE, We’re Switching Off Our 3G Network:

https://ee.co.uk/3g-switch-off

4. Three, Our plans to switch off 3G:

https://www.three.co.uk/support/network-and-coverage/our-plans-to-switch-off-3g

5. Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, A joint statement on the sunsetting of 2G and 3G networks and public ambition for Open RAN rollout as part of the Telecoms Supply Chain Diversification Strategy:

https://www.gov.uk/government/news/a-joint-statement-on-the-sunsetting-of-2g-and-3g-networks-and-public-ambition-for-open-ran-rollout-as-part-of-the-telecoms-supply-chain-diversificatio

6. O2, LTE-M Coverage:

LPWAN – LTE-M and NB-IoT

7. Vodafone, Vodafone expands IoT coverage to 98% as customer demands continue to grow:

https://www.vodafone.co.uk/newscentre/press-release/iot-coverage-98-percent-of-uk/

8. Wikipedia, Narrowband IoT

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narrowband_IoT

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