3 Questions to Ask Before Selecting an LTE WAN

By Andrew Lund

“We have our device, now we need to connect it to the Internet.”

You can imagine the scenario: A group of talented engineers has created a new way of using a connected device to improve a process. But to realize the benefits, the device must be connected to a remotely hosted software application.

When the team was developing its solution, they had Wi-Fi in the office. In field trials, however, they are learning the following:

  • The solution is installed in areas where a wired WAN connection is prohibitively expensive.
  • The solution is installed on third-party customer sites, and customers’ IT groups will not allow them to piggyback on the local Wi-Fi network.
  • There is an OK network connection in 80 percent of locations, but customers also want to use it in places where there isn’t easy Internet access.

To solve these issues, sooner or later someone on the team will recommend using LTE. When that recommendation arises, here are a few questions the team will inevitably face.

“Can I build it myself?”
You have to consider the cost of certification and support. If you’ve already built an Internet of Things (IoT) device, it might seem like a no-brainer to just add an LTE module, especially if you see a module claiming to be pre-certified and ready to use. It’s important to realize that, just because a module claims to be certified by a carrier, it doesn’t mean the work is all done. For a company committing to embed a cellular module, it is just beginning. Network changes, radio firmware changes, security patches—these are all now their responsibility.

Then you have to consider if you need specific software. Sometimes the desire to integrate custom software leads companies down the complicated do-it-yourself path. However, some Linux solutions, such as SmartStart, include ample memory space for custom code as well as pre-published user modules that already support various integrated software.

“What is the best way to get an Internet connection?”
If you ask a carrier this question, it’s likely you’ll end up with a subsidized USB dongle. That could be a fine way to do a proof of concept, but USB dongles are consumer devices designed to connect a laptop to the Internet. They are not designed to connect an autonomous machine to the Internet, and certainly not designed to be centrally managed once hundreds—or thousands—are in the field.

Regarding Wi-Fi, some customers will allow guest devices on their network, but this is rare and becoming even rarer due to security concerns. Even if a device is allowed on, few service providers want to be in the position of relying on someone else (even their own customers) for a network connection. This means that support for Wi-Fi client mode, where the device is a client of the local Wi-Fi but can failover to LTE, is crucial.

This is why you should consider a standalone LTE router—it can provide an extremely secure and reliable network connection with a much lower opex proposition than an internally developed and supported embedded LTE solution. Because of this, LTE is increasingly the choice for value-add solutions in process automation, distributed media and remote monitoring applications.

“How will I manage the network(s)?”
Once an LTE solution is selected, the process of receiving, configuring and installing begins. SNMP-based tools, such as OpenView or SolarWinds, are great for basic monitoring functions like network uptime and packet loss, but the best way to improve both the initial mass configuration (getting the same profile on all devices) and ongoing monitoring (signal strength, change logging) is to use a device management solution, such as SmartWorx Hub or another vendor-developed tool.

When asking these questions, one thing is clear: Choosing and implementing an LTE router is more complex than simply finding a part number and pulling the trigger. There has to be a better way, and there is; it comes in the form of skilled assistance. For a successful LTE solution, it’s imperative to work with people who have the right engineering and support experience—individuals who understand your specific application needs for today and the future. With expert help and innovative devices, these questions simply become one step in the journey toward successful implementation.