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Cellular communication for remote I/O

Dear Control Engineering: I was looking at the announcement about using cellular service for industrial devices. Is this really practical? Wouldn’t it be hugely expensive?

November 05, 2010


Dear Control Engineering: I was looking at the announcement about using cellular service for industrial devices. Is this really practical? Wouldn’t it be hugely expensive?

The idea of using commercial cellular networks for industrial communication isn’t all that new, but it hasn’t been as widely deployed as something like wireless Ethernet. For example, there have been systems to call operators’ phones in the event of an alarm for some time. Like all technologies, its practicality and cost effectiveness depends on how and where you use it.

It’s true that among various wireless technologies, cellular is one of the more expensive to support, however there are ways to mitigate that, and you may find that in some cases your other choices are even worse.

The where you should use it is typically for remote I/O where there aren’t other less expensive alternatives. If you have a cluster of automation at some distant location, using an existing cellular network may be cheaper overall than installing your own infrastructure. Of course if it’s so remote that it’s outside even commercial coverage, you’re out of luck.

The how relates to the nature of the data you have to send. If you need constant communication or have high bandwidth requirements, cellular will probably be too expensive. Ideal applications involve small amounts of data with infrequent updates. Or, situations where you call the devices only when circumstances demand. Since you will have to pay based on minutes or amount of data, the less the better.

In this particular case, ProSoft Technology has created this service package to help users work with the commercial provider. Taking an industrial cellular modem to your local phone store will probably draw very confused looks from the sales folks who are used to dealing with Droids and iPhones.

Peter Welander, pwelader(at)cfemedia.com

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