Massive IoT, aka massive Machine-Type Communications (mMTC), is already impacting a number of industries. It’s truly a worldwide phenomenon, aggregating the power of myriad sensors, connectivity, and data processing to create new paradigms and solutions.

Heralded by many as the future, clearly massive IoT can transform businesses. Given its obvious applications to the utilities sector – eg, for smart metering and smart grid management – but is the sector harnessing the full value of these opportunities?

Massive IoT or mMTC is all around us. We live in a vast connected ecosystem of data-gathering applications. These draw on comparatively low levels of data at their source but when aggregated by the application vendor or, for example, by a utility company, the amount of data is simply enormous. Think smart thermostats, alarm & access control systems for the home, smart bulbs, and smart meters – you see where this is going.

Massive IoT is an information system that uses cloud and edge computing, big data, and AI to make huge amounts of data more accessible for individuals as well as for businesses, and not least energy suppliers and utilities. mMTC-enabled sensors enable remote monitoring, maintenance and assessment of data across a wide range of applications, including smart grids and substations.

The sheer volume of devices involved in mMTC and their respective networks place ever greater demand on the network coverage, battery life and device cost, as well as the cost and resilience of the connectivity itself. Many of these devices are communicating through cellular – 4G and now 5G – networks and are reliant upon long-life batteries.

At the same time, we are experiencing an ‘energy trilemma’ – the inherent tension between energy affordability, energy security and the environmental impact of most of the energy consumed on the grid. A perfect storm perhaps, but advancements in technology have a history of providing the solutions we need.

Remote monitoring in smart grids reduces human error and lost time in manual visits and processes, which can have a huge impact on operational efficiency and the bottom line. Likewise, predictive maintenance allows utilities to forecast when equipment may fail, so servicing can be carried out to avoid costly downtime. And with smart meters, energy data is collected, sent, and evaluated in real-time by the utility company.

All this allows utilities to provide real-time alerts and adjust pricing and supply based on data insights as necessary. It can aid the monitoring and control of power quality, and increase energy savings for the customer and install software updates, again in real-time.

The challenges

With the ever-greater adoption of mMTC inevitably comes a number of challenges. There is the capital outlay for utilities/operators, not least for modernisation or installation of new hardware, although much of the legacy hardware doesn’t need to be changed immediately. Furthermore, while battery-life tends to be very long, the cost of replacing millions of batteries in the field may not seem a viable option for many utilities.

Ultimately, this highlights a scalability challenge for Massive IoT programmes within the utilities sector, including the ability to always cope with the amount of data transferred during peak times, and of course, the accessibility of that data where connectivity indoors may be an issue – with many smart meters being housed in less accessible areas, such as basements.

And of course, there’s data security to be considered, with utilities needing to ensure that the very minimum of customer data is required for the tasks at hand, and secure from the reach of hostile parties.

Plugging the gaps with satellite

To combat some of these challenges and simply, gaps, suppliers need to ensure ubiquitous and seamless connectivity, from the grid or smart meter back to the provider.

Low power wide area networks (LoRaWAN), which connect devices wirelessly to their host network, help solve many of the needs of massive IoT in transmitting sensor data to a central gateway and then forwarding these data packets as raw or processed data using satellite or cellular as WAN data backhaul. LoRaWAN is very cost-effective and enables utilities to embed arrays of monitoring sensors and instrumentation into their assets to constantly monitor and transmit key parameters such as temperature and fluid levels. Using LoRaWAN utilities can implement preventive maintenance, offering greater value for their customers whilst reducing operational costs and strengthening the customer relationship.

However, it is estimated that only 10% of the earth is supported by cellular*, whereas the Iridium satellite network covers 100%. Automating control across the entire network is enabling companies to respond rapidly to outages, fluctuations, and peaks in demand. Clearly, none of this is possible without reliable data and failsafe connectivity.

Meanwhile, mMTC via satellite is helping utility workers in the field, where lone operators are constantly visiting remote areas outside normal cellular coverage.

As utilities and their customers navigate the energy trilemma, it’s vital that mMTC is not only helping the customer to be efficient with their energy consumption but that providers are able to ensure that both the grid and smart meters are delivering the data required to manage peaks and troughs in demand without costly downtime. Given the wide geographical footprint across which utilities need to operate, the satellite is becoming increasingly key.

In sum, massive IoT is providing utilities with the real-time information they require while the grids of tomorrow will become even more connected as infrastructure. Satellite communications will be pivotal to this now and in the future, because, without a connection, nothing is smart.

This article also appeared in Modern Power Systems magazine.