Opinion: Navigating the cellular transition and its impacts on real-time tracking devices
By Matthew Neidlinger, Director — Product Management at Emerson
The quickly evolving mobile device industry has thrust the perishable cold chain into a period of transition. For years, 2G and 3G cellular networks have provided the technology infrastructure that enabled real-time trackers to transmit live location and temperature data on in-transit perishable shipments.
But in many parts of the world, the mobile device industry is beginning to outgrow the use of 2G and 3G; many of these legacy networks are turning down to make room for newer 4G and 5G options. As this transition takes place over the next several years all around the globe, end-users of real-time cargo tracking devices may experience gaps in their live shipment monitoring and tracking capabilities.
What this means to perishable cold chain stakeholders
Over the years, real-time trackers have become essential tools for monitoring food quality and safety in the perishable supply chain. Combined with cloud-enabled technology infrastructure and supporting software, this solution grants growers, logistics companies and food retailers live access to in-transit shipment location and sensor data they need to monitor food quality and safety — such as levels of temperature, humidity, light exposure and much more.
But as 2G and 3G networks become obsolete, end-users of these real-time tracking devices may experience data gaps in their in-transit shipment coverage, which could result in:
- Inability to monitor food quality (freshness) and safety in real-time
- Missing real-time alerts (emails/text messages) of temperature excursions
- Incomplete data for prompt resolution of shipment disputes
- Potential risks to brand reputations
If your company is currently using 2G and 3G real-time trackers, you may have already experienced the impacts of cellular network turndown. However, if you’re neither closely monitoring in-transit shipment data nor have been made aware of gaps in your real-time data, you might not have noticed any disruptions in coverage. Companies should be on the lookout for the following signs of network connectivity issues:
- Increasing blind spots in visibility to shipment location/temperature data
- Intermittent brownouts of real-time access
- Gaps in historic trip coverage and data points
What’s the alternative to 2G and 3G networks?
In many ways, 2G network capabilities have been ideally suited for the unique data requirements of the cargo tracking industry. Real-time tracking devices leveraging these networks need to transmit only small packets of data periodically — such as live location information and temperatures of in-transit shipments. They simply don’t have the same bandwidth and data transmission requirements as devices designed specifically for 4G or 5G.
That’s why most real-time trackers in use today have been designed with cellular connectivity protocols that utilize 2G or 3G SIM cards. And since 2G technology doesn’t share the same memory requirements, high battery power and data transmission capabilities of 4G and 5G networks, these devices could be manufactured and sold at accessible price points without compromising their ability to perform their critical functions.
With the sunsetting of 2G and 3G networks, real-time trackers will need to transition to the next generation of cellular network technology. But rather than utilizing expensive 5G networks used by today’s smartphones and cellular-enabled mobile devices, new real-time trackers will be designed to leverage emerging low-power, wide area (LPWA) network technologies that have evolved from 4G LTE:
- Category M (Cat-M), where “M” stands for mobile
- Narrow band IoT (NB-IoT)
These new networks are the logical successors to 2G and 3G — allowing real-time trackers to transmit valuable sensor data without requiring the extensive memory, battery power and data transmission capabilities of 5G. Like 2G, these new networks will help keep real-time trackers cost-effective while delivering similar performance characteristics.
The next generation of real-time trackers is here
At Emerson, we are committed to helping the perishable cold chain industry make this transition. To bridge the gap between 2G and emerging technologies and ensure uninterrupted tracking and monitoring, we are developing the next generation of real-time tracking devices that utilize the new Cat-M and NB-IoT networks. In fact, we recently launched the first of these new devices, the GO Real-Time 4G/Cat-M Tracker at the Fruit Logistica trade show in Berlin.
This release is part of our efforts to expand our suite of 2G and 3G real-time trackers with new devices engineered to enable multi-network compatibility. Multi-network technology will allow end-users of these new devices to utilize emerging LPWA networks when they are available, while “falling back” to 2G as needed. In doing so, these new devices will help eliminate real-time dead zones by providing coverage for shipments that travel between 2G and emerging LPWA network areas. Our next generation of devices will be available in dual- and tri-mode network capabilities:
- Dual-mode: Cat-M or NB-IoT with 2G fallback capabilities
- Tri-mode: Cat-M and NB-IoT with 2G fallback capabilities
Be prepared, stay informed and pay attention to your data
As the evolving mobile device industry transitions to 4G LTE and 5G technologies around the world, our industry will see more 2G and 3G networks become obsolete — and more Cat-M and NB-IoT networks coming online. This transition is already taking place and will be in flux for the next several years, with specific turndown timelines dependent on the cellular carrier and global or regional preferences.
From a cargo tracking industry perspective, it’s important to realize that coverage zones may vary and there may not be worldwide conformity for some time. This variability will create complexity when trying to ensure real-time coverage of perishable shipments around the globe. Rest assured that Emerson is doing everything we can to help prepare the cargo tracking industry for this cellular network transition by:
- Advising customers which real-time trackers work best for their shipping routes
- Working with network providers to understand the timing of 2G and 3G turndowns
- Developing next-generation, real-time tracker technologies
- Providing industry stewardship on how to achieve uninterrupted real-time cargo tracking
So if you’re an end-user of real-time tracking devices, pay attention to your data stream. If you start seeing gaps in coverage or brownouts in your live tracking capabilities, please let us know. Wherever your business ships its perishable cargo, we’ll help you navigate this cellular transition.
Matthew is responsible for global product management, including new product discovery, project execution, and product marketing content for in-transit cargo monitoring within Emerson’s Cold Chain business unit. He recently returned from a three-year assignment in Dubai, where he led Emerson’s marketing efforts pertaining to air conditioning solutions in the Middle East and Africa.
Matthew has worked in the HVACR industry for 10 years. His roles have included marketing, planning and product development responsibilities with an emphasis on delivering new products and solutions to customers.
Matthew earned a master’s degree in industrial engineering from the University of Michigan, and an MBA from Indiana University.