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NB-IoT and Blockchain are two new technologies that a lot of people have been talking about recently. Here you can find out what are they exactly, what kind of challenges they present to their users and what kind of value can they add to cold chain monitoring.

NB-IoT: just another hype or the real thing?

I’ve recently taken some time to evaluate the new IoT communication technology called Narrowband IoT, or NB-IoT for short. NB-IoT is originally based on 4G technology but it has been developed further from a battery-operated device perspective. This means it is not as “heavy” as the original 4G and fits better for lower data rates and smaller data amounts. There is already enormous hype around NB-IoT and many of our customers have been asking if we have NB-IoT temperature sensors available yet. However, the reality is not quite what various marketing materials make it seem.

Locally speaking, the telecommunications operator Telia just announced that their infrastructure supports NB-IoT in Finland. Unfortunately, they cover only about a half of the country, leaving the rest waiting for Yhteisverkko to roll out their own NB-IoT support. This has started already, but there are still many white areas in the coverage map. Incomplete coverage in Finland is, however, not an exception. Considering the global situation, the Mobile IoT deployment map from GSMA shows that NB-IoT, as well as the similar LTE Cat-M1, still have a long way to go before we can call them global standards – at least in the sense where they’d also have global coverage.

As a technology NB-IoT is also still immature. The defining features like power saving and smart communication, which battery-powered devices really need, are still under development. And all the great calculations about 10 times the battery life with a single AA cell are based on one message per day (and only transmitter power consumption is taken into account). So, if you need a device with ensured communication and messages sent at few minute intervals, NB-IoT might not be right solution, at least not yet. And if you also need global coverage, you have to think about hybrid solution where NB-IoT and LTE Cat-M1 are in the same device and, depending on the location, the appropriate communication technology is then used.

While fraught with challenges at the moment, when the technology matures and actual global support exists, using NB-IoT (and LTE Cat-M1) for globally working solutions seems to be the answer for many companies’ needs. Without giving anything away yet, Sensire will be ready when NB-IoT really kicks in.

Blockchain: Only as Good as Its Data Input?

Another subject that a lot of people are talking about is the blockchain. While not that relevant yet to Sensire’s technology, I wanted to take a moment to go over it as well. By reading the hype on the internet, one could think that blockchain will right all problems in the supply chain and even beyond. However, there are still some challenging areas to the technology, which can create difficulties both in the short and long term.

Blockchain, as it is normally understood, is an encrypted digital ledger that can be shared between multiple users. All input data also gets distributed, which allows all involved to have the same visibility to that data, and it is marketed as immutable. Ideally all participants in the blockchain would share one version of objective truth, enabling them to perform transactions based on shared knowledge.

So at its most basic, blockchain is just another cryptographically secured method of sharing information. There have been others for some time now, blockchain being different in that it eliminates the need for a 3rd party operator to verify transactions and data. But with multiple blockchain projects underway it is still hard to tell which ones will survive. Also starting from scratch is not easy, as the technology requires a network of other users to be effective, and it might not be easy to convince others in your supply chain to adopt one particular technology.

Gaining better a supply chain transparency is of course very good, but another worry might be that the added visibility is only as good as the data input. Even if the data is verified by multiple partners, there is no guarantee that the input is valid from the beginning. As such, careless participants can disrupt the correct working of the blockchain. There have also been some cases where blockchain-based cryptocurrencies have been hacked in one way or another, so there is no way of guaranteeing total immutability and security either.

Blockchain as a concept is designed to offer transparency on the transactional level, i.e. goods arriving and leaving logistics hubs, or being delivered to customers. So another possible issue is with the transaction times - meaning that occasionally it takes a very long time before a new transaction is processed and visible to all participants. Bitcoin has an average of 10 minutes transaction time, but it can be much longer during peak moments, 16 hours maximum so far. So there is always system delay in blockchain which has to be taken into account when designing blockchain solutions.

From a cold chain perspective, because blockchain data is based on transactions from one state to another, the temperature data (based on timed measurements) in a cold chain blockchain exists primarily as a means of validation, not for real-time monitoring or immediate alerts. This means that the various operators within a cold chain, even if they use blockchain technology for transactional transparency, should still use other systems to monitor temperatures if they want to take advantage of real-time visibility.

Having said all that, I don’t want to make it seem that blockchain isn’t a good technology for shared transactions and data. But like most technologies, it is not in itself a solution to everything, only a method of addressing some particular challenges. Should one or other of our customers want to participate in blockchain, Sensire’s products can for their part provide the best possible data to upload into it, and of course we seek to make integrating our system with others as easy as possible.

It will be interesting to see how the various blockchain projects will work out, how the above challenges will be addressed and solved, and who will come out on top. In the meantime, Sensire offers Intelligent Cold Chain as a method of secure data sharing with a tested technology even now.

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