The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has addressed the issues associated with licensing spectrum for the Internet of Things (IoT), arguing in favour of a default spectrum band for all devices across the globe -- or, alternatively, sensors that can identify which country a device is operating in.
The ACMA's head of Operations, Services and Technologies, Mark Loney, speaking at the RadComms event in Sydney on Thursday, outlined the challenges inherent in the IoT, explaining that there are compliance risks involved in both devices and deployment.
"In devices, it's around manufacturing and supply," Loney explained.
"We all know about globalisation of manufacturing, supply, and standardisation, but we do see them colliding in some cases with national spectrum arrangements."
More specifically, devices will be manufactured on a wide scale without taking into account the different IoT spectrum bands being used in each country they are then shipped out to -- particularly when those making the supply-chain decisions have no knowledge of spectrum licensing.
"As supply chains globalise, we're increasingly seeing that compliance with regulatory arrangements is being managed by head office as opposed to a local supplier with technical expertise, and so that means that you're going to end up with the licence being brought in bulk into Australia and other countries that are actually configured for arrangements elsewhere," he said.
"It's just a sales team or a marketing team ... not necessarily anyone who knows about device compliance issues."
Even when there is a compliant device, its deployment on the wrong frequency could also cause problems, particularly when there is a large number of them.
Loney used the deployment of radio frequency identification (RFID) chips on bees by the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) last year as an example of this.
In August, the CSIRO had partnered with Intel in an attempt to solve the disappearance and death of honey bees worldwide by installing Linux-based Intel Edison micro-sensors on the backs of bees to track their movements.
However, the chips had been deployed in a way that interfered with telecommunications carriers using the same 900MHz spectrum band.
"The famous -- or famous for us, anyway -- the 'interference bees': So the CSIRO did some experiments, put an RFID device on them that was on the wrong frequency and quite high power, so over our limits," Loney said.
"It caused serious interference for Optus and Vodafone, and that was on the infringement notices, not to the CSIRO but for the supplier, who knew that they were selling."
While the ACMA cannot directly regulate worldwide standards on IoT spectrum frequency, it can influence these decisions, Loney said. To mitigate the issues of device compliance and deployment, the ACMA has come up with three possible solutions: A default frequency worldwide for all IoT devices, which the regulator suggested should be the 915-928MHz band; a low-cost receiver that knows which country the device is in; and a higher-cost, more complex device sensor to be installed on IoT devices that can identify exactly where it is, and therefore which mode to operate in.
"[The last] option, which requires a two-way network as opposed to a one-way sensor that's just transmitting to a collector, is to have the network tell the device to operate in a particular mode. So the device in a sense knows which country it's in, and that it should operate in mode 4 instead of mode 1," he explained, although he added that this comes with its own challenges.
"How do you get them built into 40 billion devices? It has to be a solution that's cost effective; the IoT parameters seem to mean low-cost devices, so less than AU$10, and long battery lives."
The ACMA said it needs to find companies to partner with in order to explore these options more fully and come up with a solution.
The government agency in December released a set of proposed changes to spectrum regulations aimed at providing easier access for M2M operators utilising spectrum for the IoT.
Currently, IoT and M2M operators access spectrum under the ACMA's Radiocommunications Low Potential Interference Devices (LIPD) Class Licence 2015, which pre-approves usage of the radio-frequency spectrum for certain devices that have a low potential to cause interference with other devices.
Included in the pre-approved list already are garage door openers, Bluetooth devices, anti-theft devices, e-tag systems, wireless microphones, and WLAN devices. Should the ACMA's proposal go through, more IoT devices will be added to the list as they come into widespread use.
The ACMA is looking at adding new frequency bands for in-ground ultra-wide bandwidth transmitters used in automated parking management systems; radio-determination transmitters used as industrial sensors; and analysis devices used for detecting objects in walls, ceilings, and floors.
Loney explained that LIPD licensing -- which outgoing chairman Chris Chapman described as the "unsung hero" of Australia's spectrum management framework last month -- operates on a "best-endeavours basis".
"You can't really effectively cooperate or collaborate with the other users in the band; the collaboration has to work further back in the supply chain in terms of the way devices are designed and built and deployed," he pointed out.
While Loney said that existing mobile networks will form "a big part of the IoT solution and infrastructure", he acknowledged the use case for low-power, wide-area narrowband networks.
Instead of using cellular networks for the IoT, narrowband low-power, long-range, wide-area networks that use available, unlicensed radio spectrum could allow for extended coverage and less complex devices with higher battery life, meaning more connected devices.
"One of the outcomes of the review of the 803-960MHz band was to make some additional spectrum available for low-power, wide-area networks, LoRa LAN being one example of that," Loney said, adding that it would be put under a spectrum authorisation class licence from about 2021.
"That would be greenfields spectrum at that point, for low-powered, wide-area networks, because the incumbents will have transitioned out."
Catherine Caruana-McManus, speaking on behalf of the IoT Alliance at RadComms, said there has been growing interest in LoRa networks.
"We're seeing at the community level the opportunity around low-powered, long-range networks, LP-WAN, which is activating things around smart cities," said Caruana-McManus.
Andres Torres, Ericsson strategic marketing manager, explained that the low-cost devices necessary to enable the IoT require their own low-cost solution, which is possibly only afforded by narrowband networks.
"Narrowband IoT ... recently launched the standards that are going to enable Internet of Things for LTE," Torres claimed on Thursday.
"And this is very important, because LTE is becoming ubiquitous, LTE in Australia is pretty much covering 90 percent of the territory, or the population, but then the LTE chipsets are too expensive, and that has been the case over the last few years since LTE was launched.
"If a chipset for LTE costs you AU$40, then you cannot have one of those chipsets in each one of the devices.
"With these new standards, LTE chipsets are going to go down to as low as AU$5 ... and that's going to enable operators and industry places to use LTE to connect these Internet of Things devices."
Ericsson is slated to begin trialling narrowband IoT technology in Singapore across Singtel's 4G network in the latter half of 2016.
In Australia, the LoRa technology operates across the 918MHz-928MHz spectrum band, with both Australian startup National Narrowband Network trialling its technology on Sydney's North Shore in August across 10 base stations covering 50-100 square kilometres last year, and incumbent telco Telstra trialling LoRaWAN in Melbourne in November.