Interview R&S: Communications becoming mission-critical
eeNews Europe: The Internet of Things (IoT) is currently a much-discussed topic and certainly won’t be ignored by a manufacturer of advanced Test and Measurement equipment such as Rohde & Schwarz. How does this topic affect your business, and which measurement challenges will IoT confront you with?
Joerg Koepp: Rohde & Schwarz mainly focuses on test and measurement for wireless communications. For us, IoT communications normally means M2M communications, so this has various aspects. First, there is the technological aspect. We observe that to some extent in the IoT context the technologies in use are well established – technologies we have known for years. This primarily holds true for the cellular technologies like 2G, 3G and increasingly LTE . However, M2M applications and their diverse requirements sometimes lead to the emergence of new technologies that for instance address power efficiency requirements . For us, this situation creates new business opportunities, of course, but we also have to assess what is "the hype of the day" and what will prevail in the market and remain attractive for us in the long run.
Another aspect that IoT brings to test and measurement is that communications increasingly plays a role in mission-critical or life-critical applications – and these applications have to be tested. The certification tools needed for this purpose are an interesting field of future business for us. An example is car-to-x communications. In the USA and Europe, the standardization of this technology has already reached an advanced stage. With IEEE 802.11p, a kind of modified Wi-Fi standard that originally was not designed for this type of application is now in use. For this reason, issues such as fading, concurrent handling of multiple requests, etc., have to be resolved. We are collaborating closely with the respective industry players to develop test methods and to simulate realistic environments like fading profiles to ensure that these devices work reliably under all circumstances.
Insights of a changing industry: Joerg Koepp (left), and Meik Kottkamp from Rohde & Schwarz.
There are also application-related aspects. In safety-relevant applications, the test effort can become very large. However, in IoT, with billions of connected devices anticipated, not all applications are safety-relevant. Consumer applications will be produced in high quantities and must be very low cost. This raises the question of what can be tested with these applications and who is willing to pay for it. This cost pressure is causing the test ecosystem to shift. Manufacturers often do not own the test equipment and do not use it on site. And, by the way, the tendency is that they no longer have the required expertise. Instead, the design and test activities are largely being outsourced.
eeNews Europe: Does the shift of testing activities towards specialized service providers lead to consequences for the design of the test equipment?
Koepp: For many test houses, IoT and M2M are becoming increasingly important business opportunities. However, there are different constraints than with OEMs, since these test houses in most cases are well established in the test business and have the required experience. But there is still a demand for more cost-effective, specialized test solutions as opposed to versatile, multifunctional equipment for broader markets.
eeNews Europe: Does this shift generate new business opportunities for you?
Koepp: From our perspective the question is: how can we address this fragmented market with its many small players, and which test solutions are best suited for this market? And is it necessary to create specific M2M test solutions? We have to consider cost aspects as well as technology. One can expect the test effort for many IoT devices to increase. But also at the other end of the spectrum, in the bulk business where cost pressure is extreme, the test ecosystem is undergoing massive change. This holds true for the actors as well as for the technology to be used. Entirely new technologies as to how to achieve maximum coverage with minimal effort are currently under discussion.
eeNews Europe: Does this mean that the test equipment must become more intelligent? Does it have to be connected to the Internet or to a GPS receiver, for instance for the purpose of finding the correct working frequencies?
Koepp: Yes, but there are more aspects to be considered. For instance, in the mobile phone business, testing has up to now focused on cellular technologies. Now GPS technology is added to the picture as well as the testing technology for globally dispersed TV channels with their different frequencies. The same holds true for M2M applications. Plus, tests today frequently include higher OSI layers. For this reason, we integrate deep packet inspection functionalities into the test instruments to enable test engineers to examine, for example, signalization and traffic behavior. This can be very relevant, for instance when it comes to power consumption.
eeNews Europe: One would expect that power consumption is typically addressed at a higher level, close to the application level. This would put power consumption into the responsibility of software developers, not of test equipment designers.
Koepp: The matter is a bit more complex. In the M2M realm, there are indeed features at the network layer that can reduce power consumption. A typical example: if I have a sensor that sends its data once every ten minutes, then such a sensor does not need to be in active state all the time; in between the transmissions it can be switched to some form of power saving mode supported by the network. You see that this way power consumption can be linked to the network parameters.
eeNews Europe: What expectations does Rohde & Schwarz have regarding the IoT business market? Can you share some figures?
Koepp: We see, of course, that the industry is getting ready for IoT, and are aware of these well-known figures of 50 billion connected devices. We also know that the total available market in 2020 is estimated to be around $800 billion. These are enormous abstract numbers that help to understand that communications technologies are being used in more and more industry fields and applications. With our test and measurement competence, we can contribute to make these new applications become reality. Two examples of application-specific markets are eCall and car-to-X. We are very active in these markets, and of course we also cover the cellular technologies with all the test cases associated with them.
eeNews Europe: Which RF technologies do you think will prevail in IoT in the long run?
Meik Kottkamp: There won’t be one single RF technology to cover all requirements. Based on the requests we receive for test equipment, we see that the range of technologies is currently expanding at a rapid pace. And so is the range of applications. Customer requests show us that set-top box vendors and cable network operators are interested in entering the home automation markets and that they plan to use existing remote control solutions for this purpose. But it is hard to judge what will prevail in the future, since there are lots of alternatives – ZigBee, Bluetooth low energy and, of course, Wi-Fi. In addition, there are significant regional differences, for example when it comes to the future usage of TV white space. Our standard solutions enable users to solve a very broad range of measurement challenges. For specific customer requirements, it is necessary to map out multiple relevant aspects – such as how big the market is and who will really need this solution.
eeNews Europe: A technology that already has been hyped a lot is NFC. But it seems like the hype has now quieted down. Based on the demand for test equipment, can you perhaps determine if this technology has a chance to survive?
Koepp: I don’t believe that NFC is doomed to fail. Although it has not yet found widespread acceptance in Europe, it is rather popular in Asia, and large credit card organizations there are about to upgrade their card terminals with NFC. Worldwide there are 275 million NFC-enabled handsets in use, and Apple’s new iPhone 6 also supports NFC. So the technology is here, but perhaps it is not yet widely utilized. We are aware of new developments in the medical domain that involve NFC – for example to enable communications with cardiac pacemakers and other implants. The range of potential applications is huge, and it is constantly growing. We also have test solutions for NFC in our portfolio and see steady demand for them.
eeNews Europe: How is the situation in 5G networks? It is expected that this technology will take the interests of IoT into account – for example by supporting decentralized network structures. Where does the development of 5G technologies stand today?
Kottkamp: The 5G developments reflect many requirements from IoT. While cellular networks – 2G, 3G, 4G – were being developed, the discussion widely focused on data rates and bandwidth. Among the requirements we see today are very short latencies and long battery life, as well as the need to have many more devices connected without causing overload scenarios. All these requirements originate from IoT and can be defined at the 5G network level. A complete list of requirements has not yet been defined, but 5G is currently a very large research topic, also at the EU level. We expect the results of these research activities to be included in the standardization process. But this is still some time away. If we assume that 5G will be ready for commercialization by 2020, we should anticipate that the specs will be finalized around 2018. Topics currently under discussion are individual technology components like large bandwidths, high frequencies and new, light protocol structures to enable fast access times and long battery life. Some of these topics are discussed in the LTE camp as well, such as power saving and device-to-device communication. Plus, the optimization of LTE is also determined by M2M and IoT requirements.