Will Communications-as-a-Service Become a New Normal for IoT? u-blox Seems to Think So

April 02, 2020 by Gary Elinoff

u-blox recently acquired Thingstream, a "communication‑as‑a-service provider." What does this service entail? And how might it affect future designs bound for IoT devices?

u-blox, a company known for its positioning and wireless communication products, announced yesterday that it has acquired Thingstream, a startup that calls itself an "IoT communication‑as‑a-service provider." AAC contributor Chantelle DuBois once discussed how the everything-as-a-service business model is making AI, drones, and robotics more accessible.

How might this business model extend to wireless communications?


A Blending of Strengths

Thingstream will provide u-blox a wide-open field to deploy its arsenal of low-power communications modules. Beyond that, though, the two companies complement each other in ways that may introduce new wireless devices on the horizon. 

“The acquisition of Thingstream and its platform accelerates u-blox’s entry into a new dimension of our services business, the IoT sphere, which will provide customers with a reliable, smart, and secure solution to connect sensor data to their cloud enterprise,” says Thomas Seiler, CEO of u-blox.

u-blox explains that now, with the incorporation of Thingstream, it can pave a faster path to IoT growth for its 7,000 customers by simplifying worldwide data communications. Here's what else u-blox and Thingstream bring to the table.


u-blox's Chips and Modules

u-blox is a major provider of low-power communications modules, most notably cellular chips and modules and short-range radio chips and modules. Use cases often include connecting IoT devices operating on the edge.


Diagram of u-blox's short-range radio architectures.

Diagram of u-blox's short-range radio architectures. Image used courtesy of u-blox


IoT is particularly useful in devices located in remote or hazardous environments. In such cases, battery replacement can be cumbersome or even dangerous, making low-power operation key.


Thingstream’s Communications-as-a-Service Framework

Thingstream provides a complete “communications-as-a-service” framework for worldwide IoT connectivity. Based on standard message queuing telemetry transport (MQTT), IoT communications-as-a-service is tailor-made for situations requiring sporadic, low-bandwidth communications.

Thingstream offers three product variations for MQTT:

  • MQTT Anywhere for any IoT device to use either Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) or User Datagram Protocol (UDP) to send and receive MQTT for sensor network (MQTT-SN) messages
  • MQTT Here for capturing traffic from LoRaWAN gateways and managing it as MQTT messages
  • MQTT Now for enabling IoT devices that require Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP-IP) communication


Thingstream's three MQTT products

A diagram illustrating how Thingstream's three MQTT products work with its MQTT broker, data flow manager, and your enterprise. Image used courtesy of Thingstream


Thingstream’s service also provides physical data transfers over more than 600 telecom carriers in 190 countries over 2G, 3G, LTE, and LTE-M networks.

Seiler explains the advantages of combining the strengths of u-blox and Thingstream: “Our customers can focus on scaling their business rather than the complexities of acquiring and establishing a connectivity platform and maintaining data flow management.” 


What is Message Queuing Telemetry Transport (MQTT)?

According to Thingstream's guide to de facto communications protocol for IoT, MQTT is a well-established IoT data transfer and messaging protocol designed for machine-to-machine communications. MQTT is a publish-and-subscribe protocol, meaning clients do not communicate directly. Rather, all interactions are handled through a “broker.”

In the image below, the client (left) publishes Message A to Zürich/Florastrasse and Message B to Zürich/Hornbachstrasse/50. If another client “subscribes” to Zürich through the broker, they will receive both messages. Any number of clients can subscribe to Zürich or any of its subsets.


Diagram of Thingstream's carrier-grade MQTT broker

Diagram of Thingstream's carrier-grade MQTT broker. Image (modified) used courtesy of Thingstream


Under this scheme, the client doesn’t need to send separate messages to all concerned—just once to the broker—and all interested clients are informed.

There is also MQTT-SN, which is a version of MQTT specifically for sensor networks and optimized for low power.


Why MQTT Provides Added Value to u-blox’s IoT Customers

IoT networks are, by nature, worldwide networks. MQTT and MQTT-SN eliminate communications ambiguities. In addition, if a network is down, the message, or a request for information, will still reside safely on the broker until communications are reestablished. Even in the worst case, lost communications will be replaced by delayed communication.


Communications-as-a-Service: a New Normal?

Do you think that communication-as-a-service will become the new normal for the IoT? If you have any experience with this methodology, has it cut down the time for IoT implementations? Have you noted any downsides to this methodology? Share your experiences in the comments below.