Service providers have long been struggling with broadening Internet of Things (IoT) enablement and accessibility -- on both the industrial level and the consumer level. New, extraterrestrial innovations may soon make things easier, however, for service providers, enterprise customers and consumers alike globally (and possibly, someday, galactically).
In February, French telecommunications operator and IoT specialist Sigfox announced that it would be joining the MUSTANG Project, a collaboration that includes Airbus Defence and Space, SYSMECA (a French electronics and aerospace engineering firm) and the CEA-Leti research center.
The goal of the MUSTANG Project is the creation of a global IoT network that relies on a deployment of both terrestrial access points and satellite connectivity. The MUSTANG Project partners plan to have this hybrid surface-orbit solution in place by 2018.
The MUSTANG Project is not the first endeavor to deploy Internet links to outer space. In 1998, Internet forefather Vint Cerf partnered with NASA on the Interplanetary Internet project -- a years-long engagement to implement outer-space network communications. As part of the Interplanetary Internet, Cerf helped develop Disruption-Tolerant Networking (DTN) -- a highly robust alternative to TCP/IP (which, incidentally, Cerf himself co-invented) that accounts for interplanetary distances, targets being temporarily out of a transmitter's line of sight (such as when a planet or moon rotates) and other causes of substantial delays and disruptions.
In 2008, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory enjoyed a successful test of DTN in outer space, uploading images to and downloading images from a spacecraft about 20 million miles from Earth. Since then, additional, more advanced interstellar communication testing has gone exceedingly well for NASA.
The MUSTANG Project's communications technology may not be as complex as NASA's, but it aims to solve the IoT problem in a similar way by using multiple satellite links to ensure rapid messaging between M2M devices on opposite sides of the world. The Project will also implement modest redundancy, employing automatic switching between two ISM radio bands in response to resource availability as needed.
Meanwhile, back on earth...
Back on Earth, the Project will reportedly leverage Sigfox's terrestrial low-power, wide-area networks ("LPWANs"), switching to costlier satellite data service only where Sigfox's networks are not available. Sigfox's networks are not global yet, but the company is working fast throughout European, Asian and American markets to try to make that happen; Sigfox already enjoys broad deployment throughout France, Spain and elsewhere in Europe.
According to a press release issued by Airbus Defence and Space, in addition to the primary goal of "enabl[ing] devices to communicate worldwide," the MUSTANG Project participants view their mutual endeavor as their way of "giving French companies a strategic foothold in this growing application domain." Indeed, the French government has placed the weight of its support behind the project, granting funding to the participants by way of multiple public agencies.
If successful, the MUSTANG Project would certainly go a long way toward giving French companies much more than a mere foothold. Carriers have been wringing their hands for some time now over the issue of ubiquitous and reliable IoT networking that can anticipate and appropriately handle temporary losses in connectivity -- and the right solution has proven elusive. Cellular networks are far too expensive for data transmission for the needs of IoT which lends itself better to cheaper, low-bandwidth (albeit guaranteed-bandwidth) solutions. Wireless mesh networks have reliability issues and don't scale particularly well (absent oodles of redundancy).
So-called "carrier Wi-Fi" -- a proposed method of building a distributed mesh system by co-opting and repurposing service providers' customers' always-on devices -- lacks a workable business model and would potentially be of significant detriment to customers. Most Bluetooth devices, meanwhile, have very limited ranges; even Class 1 devices will barely reach up to 100 meters, and methods of boosting that range even further are illegal in many jurisdictions.
Hence, whichever service provider -- or collective of service providers -- that can solve this problem of IoT network ubiquity and reliability will have piles of money available for the taking. In a glutted market of LPWAN providers (including tech heavies such as Cisco and IBM) and competing LPWAN standards, the MUSTANG Project may help Sigfox and its partners blast off toward the head of the pack.
— Joe Stanganelli,
Freelance Contributor, special to The New IP