Michael Johnston is the Co-Founder and Chief Business Officer at TEAL, the world’s leading Internet of Things (IoT) networking platform.
The first generation (1G) of wireless mobile networks launched in Japan in the late 1970s before being introduced to the United States in 1983. This nascent technology was revolutionary at the time, but quickly gave way to 2G networks in the 1990s.
At the turn of the millennium, 3G networks were introduced, gradually supporting higher download speeds and laying the groundwork for a larger ecosystem of connected machines or “things.” 4G networks debuted in 2009, ushering in a new era for smartphones and giving rise to mobile apps, while also enabling a wider range of wireless machine-to-machine (M2M) applications that were not possible or economical before 2009.
5G is the latest evolution of wireless broadband technology, and promises to create even more opportunities for consumers, businesses and the rapidly growing “internet of things” (IoT) industry. However, like product lifecycles, data networks have lifecycles, too. Across the world, mobile network operators (MNOs) are actively retiring 2G and 3G cellular networks that many machines have relied on for decades.
The implications are clear: The network or network technology that lives in a machine or device today could be inaccessible in the future. This is particularly impactful to IoT applications, as devices “in the wild” can have 20-plus-year lifecycles, spanning multiple generations of wireless technology.
Unlike consumer devices, which are always within the control of an individual, IoT devices are often scattered across different geographies and settings, making them painfully difficult and expensive to physically manage once they’re deployed. This means the connectivity decisions that enterprises make today have long-term—and sometimes short-term—consequences for their customers and end users.
You don’t need to look much further than Sigfox’s bankruptcy earlier this year to be reminded that being locked into a single networking technology can have devastating implications for mission-critical IoT devices. A single point of network failure is a major risk that businesses don’t often appreciate until they’re faced with a network outage or sunset.
Today, millions of connected cars and machines are being affected by 2G and 3G network sunsets, but don’t think for a second these will be the last cellular networks that MNOs retire. Eventually, devices that rely on 4G LTE networks will be scrambling for solutions as these networks are methodically retired in the 2030s to free up spectrum for 6G networks.
Unlike an operating system or product, when a network reaches its end-of-like (EOL) cycle, carriers will turn off their networks whether users are ready for it or not. During periods of network dislocation, migrating devices from old to new networks is critical to ensure devices remain connected to the internet.
Thankfully, the future is programmable and new network technology can help future-proof devices, so IoT businesses don’t run into similar challenges moving forward. Specifically, eSIM and iSIM solutions can enable over-the-air (OTA) network switching and upgrades, as long as modems and firmware support the functionality. However, one thing to keep in mind is that IoT businesses will only benefit from eSIM and iSIM if they 1) roll out new product lines that leverage this technology today, or 2) rip-and-replace physical SIM cards in devices that are already deployed. The latter can be painful and expensive but, over the long-term, it can help ensure devices are future-proofed and lead to significant cost savings.
Investing in programmable network technology today can help ensure that businesses and users deploying connected technologies will not fall victim to planned or unplanned sunsetting by mobile network operators in the future. In other words, IoT businesses should investigate solutions, such as eSIM and iSIM, and generate best practices to prepare for when a data network dies. By doing so, their machines can remain connected to the internet without ever having to deal with expensive, time-consuming and frustrating truck rolls.