Smart Globally-Connected IoT Devices
It has been estimated that the number of long-range IoT connections will be approx. 5.4 billion by the end of 2025 . To meet the growing demand for low power wide area (LPWA) IoT connectivity, 3GPP released their Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) and LTE for Machine-Type Communications (LTE-M) specifications in 2016 (Release-13) to support low-power IoT in cellular networks.
After a slow start, these technologies are rapidly entering the IoT market with the compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 25 % for the number of subscriptions . By September 2019, 114 operators globally have launched NB-IoT or LTE-M networks . NB-IoT and LTE-M are optimized for low power consumption and modem cost as well as wide coverage and a large number of connected devices. Instead of developing new technologies for massive machine-type communications (mMTC), NB-IoT and LTE-M have been adopted as part of 5G to fulfill the LPWA requirements . In addition to mMTC and LPWA, the IoT in 5G is designed to support more demanding uses cases such as automated driving and industrial automation that require high reliability, low latency and higher data rates that could be provided by NB-IoT or LTE-M. Technologies for such critical IoT are being specified in 5G Release-16 and beyond.
Globally-Connected Devices Enabled by eSIM
Typically, cellular IoT devices are manufactured at one or several factories and then shipped all across the world. In addition, some of these devices, such as tracking devices, also move from a country to another when they are used. It is highly desirable that connectivity should work automatically after the device is taken into use throughout the device's lifetime. The traditional way of enabling this is to equip the device with a SIM card from a mobile operator and rely on its roaming agreements. The issue with this approach is that the cellular IoT roaming agreements are just recently being made between the operators  and the coverage still limited. In addition, the roaming prices have traditionally been much higher than the local prices, at least for consumer devices. Another alternative is that the device is initially equipped with the profile of a bootstrapping operator that has negotiated with local operators all across the world for the use of their cellular IoT network. The use of local profiles instead of roaming requires that the operator profile including international mobile subscriber identity (IMSI) and the security keys can be changed when needed. This can be enabled by the GSMA embedded SIM (eSIM) solution .
The eSIM standard consists of two variants, the consumer solution and the machine-to-machine (M2M) solution . In the consumer solution, the end-user has the direct choice of the operator providing connectivity. The M2M solution is designed especially for IoT devices that have no direct end-user interaction. The main difference between the solutions is that the M2M solution lacks the local profile assistant (LPA) and the possibility to locally select one of the pre-loaded operator profiles. Ideally, eSIM is a non-removable physical circuit integrated to the device but it can also have the form factor of a conventional SIM card. The integrated circuit enables smaller hermetically sealed devices not to be opened during their lifetime. Both consumer and M2M solutions support the remote over-the-air (OTA) secure provisioning of the operator profiles and the secure local storage for the operator profiles.
Demonstrating Cellular IoT Smart Products
In our preliminary use case, the aim is to demonstrate the technical feasibility of the Smart Product concept  where a set of sensors together with LPWA cellular IoT connectivity are integrated to products already during manufacturing. Depending on the phase of the product lifecycle, the sensors enable different services such as
- support for automated testing during manufacturing,
- location tracking,
- warnings about harmful delivery or usage conditions,
- remote control for the end-user,
- feedback on the actual usage conditions and history to improve the product development of the manufacturer
- support for product maintenance,
- warranty claim validation.
Depending on the service and the phase of the product lifecycle, the sensor data is transmitted to the manufacturer and to the different players in the supply chain. The product can be off the electric grid for long periods during the storage, delivery and in some cases also during the end usage. Thus, it is extremely important that communication is based on low-power connectivity options. An example of the services throughout the lifecycle is shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Globally-connected local services.
As a first step for enabling and demonstrating the Smart Product operation during its whole life cycle, we focus on the scenario where the Smart Product moves to a port for shipping. The Smart Product is initially connected to the public cellular network but is allowed to access the private port network as illustrated in Figure 2 because it can bring additional value with its sensing capabilities to the port area. The technical challenges to be studied include the dynamic change of the public network to the private network with help of eSIM, inter-operability between different network configurations, multicasting of service requests for NB-IoT and LTE-M devices, as well as novel service concepts enabled by the Smart Products. The demonstration is planned to be implemented using commercial prototyping boards with cellular IoT connectivity, eSIM support, integrated sensing and positioning. The devices connect to the 5GTN network  with multiple virtual operators, radio access network (RAN) sharing and eSIM subscription management emulation. The feasibility to implement the demo in public and Port of Oulu private cellular networks is also evaluated.
Figure 2: Example of the adaptation of the connected network and sensing in the port scenario.
This activity is hosted by 5G-VIIMA and 5G-FORCE projects as a part of the Finnish nationwide 5G test network 5GTNF . 5G VIIMA is a Finnish research project studying the potential of the developing 5G technology for industrial applications  while 5G-FORCE provides a platform including cutting edge technologies on 5G radio, networking, machine learning and security to facilitate experiment of verticals . The companies participating in the 5G-VIIMA project provide real industrial environments and plenty of real-time industrial challenges to be solved with 5G connectivity.
IoT devices move globally when shipped from the manufacturer to the end-user. In some applications, such as asset tracking, the IoT devices also cross country borders in their targeted use cases. eSIM remote provisioning provides a secure way to manage cellular IoT subscriptions throughout the device lifetime. The planned Smart Product demonstrations provide valuable practical experiences on cellular IoT remote operator profile provisioning, inter-operability between different public and private networks as well as the potential for new IoT service innovations.
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- “Mobile IoT in the 5G future - NB-IoT and LTE-M in the context of 5G,” GSMA White Paper, GSM Association, Apr. 2018.
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- ”eSIM whitepaper: The what and how of remote SIM provisioning,” White Paper, GSMA, Mar. 2018.
- M. E. Porter and J. E. Heppelmann, ”How smart, connected products are transforming competition,” Harvard Business Review, vol. 92, no. 11, pp. 64-88, Nov. 2014.
- (2019, Dec.) 5GTN - 5G Test Network. [Online]. Available: https://5gtn.fi/
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Olli Apilo has worked on research and development of wireless communications at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland since 2006. He has been involved in various projects with topics ranging from the energy efficiency of MIMO cellular communications to the development of LTE radio resource management software for commercial base stations. More recently he has been working on projects where the practical feasibility of cellular IoT technologies is evaluated for different applications. He has also been involved in developing cellular IoT testing capabilities at VTT’s 5G test network.
Jukka Mäkelä is working at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland as a principal scientist and a project manager. He has extensive experience in different fields of advanced communications networks including, for example, 5G, network infrastructures, intelligent network management, Multi-access Edge Computing and Internet of Things solutions. He has also a strong experience in leading R&D prototyping and field trial activities. His scientific activities include 40 published scientific articles including conference papers, book chapters and journal papers related to his research and development work. He is also supervising Ph.D. and diploma thesis workers at VTT.
Pekka Karhula works as a Research Scientist at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, where his current research topics include 5G and beyond communications, edge computing and IoT. He received his M.Sc. degree in Mathematical Information Technology from the University of Jyväskylä in 2016 and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. degree at the University of Oulu. His Ph.D. topic focuses on improving resource efficiency in distributed systems and edge networks. He was a visiting scholar at the Columbia University for nine months in 2018/2019. His other research interests include IoT protocols, wearables, distributed AI, light-weight virtualization and live migration of services.
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