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Environmental Inmarsat IoT & M2M Iridium

June 29, 2023

How to overcome infrastructure challenges and extend the benefits of IoT to everyone

According to the IoT Guidelines for Sustainability by the World Economic Forum, 84% of IoT deployments are already addressing or have the potential to address the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. These goals include combating climate change, promoting sustainable production patterns, and ensuring access to clean water.

However, as the report highlights, infrastructure is a fundamental requirement for these services to function. In the case of IoT, while future revenues may come from the associated data services, it’s crucial to address infrastructure challenges beforehand to pave the way for that day to arrive.

In this article, we’ll explore the obstacles that hinder the implementation of IoT solutions in areas that need them the most and propose some ideas to overcome these challenges. This list is not exhaustive, as we won’t delve into issues such as government involvement or conflict zones, recognizing the limitations of a blog post in providing practical solutions to these complex problems.

The two main barriers we will address regarding IoT infrastructure are affordability and geography.

Which regions face the most acute lack of IoT infrastructure?

Map showing internet access by region

This graphic demonstrates the impact of the digital divide, which refers to the disparity between demographics and regions that have access to modern information and communications technology and those that do not. The statistics are startling: while 93% of Americans and 88% of Europeans can access the internet, only 43% of Africans have the same capability. Even in more developed regions like the Americas, four out of every 10 rural Latin Americans lack internet connectivity due to the exorbitant costs of establishing terrestrial networks in sparsely populated areas.

The digital divide not only hampers individuals’ access to the internet but also prevents businesses and governments from harnessing the benefits of IoT connectivity. This lack of infrastructure impedes progress in areas such as energy efficiency, healthcare, public safety, environmental monitoring, transport planning, and agricultural sustainability, to name just a few.

The primary reason for this disparity is that cellular networks rely on a dense network of base stations and antennas to ensure coverage, which is a costly and challenging endeavor. Moreover, outside of urban areas, the private sector has limited financial incentive to support such infrastructure development.

One potential solution to overcome the connectivity challenges of IoT is to establish coverage using LPWAN technology. In 2021, a group of academics in the United States secured funding for a project aimed at implementing LPWAN technology in small communities in upstate New York. The objective was to enable these communities to leverage IoT applications such as remote meter readings for utility companies, traffic monitoring, real-time road and flood monitoring, crop and livestock monitoring for farmers, and efficient building management.

Preliminary results from the latter indicated significant energy cost savings ranging from 15% to 30%, which is excellent news for both consumers and the environment.

However, there are a couple of additional factors to consider. Firstly, the gateway responsible for controlling the network and aggregating data from the IoT nodes requires a means to connect to the cloud. If the gateway is positioned within cellular coverage, the addition of a cellular modem can resolve this connectivity challenge. If the gateway is situated beyond the reach of cell towers, a satellite modem like Ground Control’s RockREMOTE can achieve the same effect.


The second consideration is mobility. When it comes to mobile applications like fleet monitoring or animal tracking, neither of the two popular LPWAN technologies, NB-IoT and LoRaWAN, were initially designed for such purposes. While LoRaWAN can be used to connect moving sensors, there is a higher risk of signal interference and collision when a large number of nodes are connected. This can lead to increased energy consumption due to packet retransmission, and changes in device location elevating the spreading factor (SF) in some cases (read more).

To address mobility challenges in areas without terrestrial infrastructure, one option is to explore satellite transceivers. It’s important to look for devices with omni-directional antennas that do not require precise pointing towards the overhead satellite network. The compact RockBLOCK 9603, for example, is well-suited for transmitting small packets of sensor data over the Iridium network. It’s ideal for applications such as animal tracking collars, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and drifting data buoys. For higher data volumes and robust monitoring and control of heavy machinery, including autonomous tractors and mobile generators, the RockREMOTE Rugged is a suitable choice.

But what about the cost of satellite IoT?

The cost of satellite launches has significantly decreased, thanks to companies like Space X, bringing the cost per kilogram down from $85,000 in the 1980s to just $1,000 in 2020. This has resulted in a surge in demand and service providers in the satellite IoT sector, leading to increased competition and service diversification, which, in turn, has driven down costs. One beneficiary of this is Synnefa, one of our customers, who enables remote farming for smallholders in Kenya.

Synnefa has implemented a solution that provides accurate, real-time data on essential agricultural factors such as soil moisture, temperature, nutrient levels, and light intensity. This data empowers farmers to optimize productivity, minimize waste, and achieve remarkable results:

  • 50% water savings
  • 41% reduction in fertilizer usage
  • 30% increased production

Synnefa utilizes terrestrial connectivity for its data transmissions where available, and Kenya is relatively better connected compared to many other regions in Africa. However, as depicted on the map, there are vast agricultural areas that lack access to cellular networks.

To overcome this challenge, the Synnefa team incorporates their FarmShield device with a RockBLOCK 9602, enabling satellite connectivity. If a sensor is located beyond the reach of terrestrial communication, it utilizes satellites to transmit data.


One crucial aspect of Synnefa’s approach is that they charge their customers the same amount for cellular connectivity as they do for satellite connectivity. While there’s a cost difference for Synnefa, it’s not significant enough for them to pass it on to their customers. This means that regardless of the type of connectivity used, Synnefa’s customers can benefit from sustainable and productive farming practices, regardless of their farm’s location.

Satellite connectivity has become increasingly affordable, and there are exciting developments on the horizon. For instance, SatelioT is currently launching nanosatellites into Low Earth Orbit, positioned just 500 kilometers above us. These nanosatellites serve as telephone towers in space, extending the reach of 5G NB-IoT connectivity to virtually anywhere on Earth. In the future, it is anticipated that connecting IoT devices to this Non-Terrestrial-Network (NTN) will be possible without the need for additional transceivers or antennas. This advancement would be a significant leap forward for isolated communities and accelerate the implementation of remote monitoring applications, with no additional hardware required.

However, it’s important to note that newer entrants in the satellite IoT space, such as SatelioT and Swarm, will, for the next few years, have slower data transmission rates compared to established satellite constellations like Iridium or Inmarsat. This is due to the limited number of satellites overhead. Additionally, it is crucial to verify if the intended region for connectivity is covered by an orbiting satellite, as not all satellite operators offer truly global coverage. Nonetheless, if coverage is available, and the application can accommodate store-and-forward delivery, these low-cost options have the potential to address infrastructure and financing challenges in underserved areas.

The interplay between IoT and climate change: challenges and solutions

While IoT holds great potential in combating climate change, the unfortunate reality is that climate change itself poses obstacles to the establishment of IoT infrastructure. One major challenge is the escalating frequency, duration, and intensity of extreme events, including droughts, floods, and heatwaves. These events are increasingly difficult to predict and mitigate, and they directly impact the countries that are often least equipped to adapt to such conditions. Projections indicate that Sub-Saharan Africa, heavily reliant on rain-fed agriculture, will be particularly vulnerable to climate change’s adverse effects on food security.

To address these challenges and enhance water availability in regions impacted by climate change, projects such as solar irrigation, rainwater harvesting, and irrigation systems become indispensable. However, their effectiveness is significantly limited without the integration of IoT sensors. These sensors play a vital role in monitoring and optimizing water usage, allowing for more efficient irrigation practices, early detection of drought conditions, and better resource management.

Sub-Saharan Africa Coverage

One significant hurdle in implementing IoT-enabled solutions for smart irrigation is the limited terrestrial network coverage in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). According to Connecting Africa, SSA accounts for 47% of the world’s population without access to terrestrial networks. This lack of connectivity hinders the deployment of IoT infrastructure, preventing the region from fully harnessing the benefits of smart irrigation technology.

Even where cellular infrastructure does exist, it’s highly vulnerable to natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, and landslides. These catastrophic events can lead to power outages, damage to cell towers, and waterlogging of fiber ducts. Repairing the infrastructure can be a lengthy process, especially in developing countries where responsibility lies with county-level or national governments. In some cases, infrastructure failures caused by natural disasters may never be fully rectified, exacerbating the challenges faced in IoT deployment (read more).

For this reason, the focus turns towards two primary options: LPWAN, specifically LoRaWAN, which operates independently of traditional 4G/5G cellular tower infrastructure, and satellite connectivity. These alternatives provide valuable solutions by offering low-cost coverage over wide areas without relying on terrestrial networks for data backhaul.

Connecting sensors with gateways and satellite transceivers

Both LoRaWAN, and satellite connectivity offer increased resilience compared to traditional cellular networks; their design and characteristics make them more resilient in adverse weather conditions and other challenging environments.

LoRaWAN gateways, being significantly smaller than cell towers, are less susceptible to weather-related disruptions such as wind and rain. They are often housed in IP68 rated enclosures with features like automated leak detection and remote configuration capabilities. These attributes are essential, particularly when devices need to operate for extended periods without frequent physical access.

Similarly, satellite transceivers are typically built into highly ruggedized enclosures or shipped with such protective casings. Some models utilize solar power or single batteries that can last for years. Additionally, devices like the RockREMOTE Rugged support Over The Air (OTA) configuration, enabling remote device management. When combined with sensor arrays or data loggers, these solutions offer robust IoT capabilities that remain resilient against adverse weather conditions. The transmission and reception of data occur through satellites orbiting far above the Earth, leveraging ground stations carefully selected for their stability and security. This reliability is why satellite connectivity is often deployed in emergency situations when terrestrial networks have failed.


RWE, a leading renewable energy provider, has implemented hydrology stations in remote areas of Wales, UK, to monitor various environmental factors such as water levels, precipitation, air and water temperatures, and relative humidity. These stations are located at hydroelectric power stations, where water is channeled through turbines to generate renewable energy for the grid.

By monitoring the data collected from the hydrology stations, operators can respond to excessive rainfall by increasing the water flow through the turbines. This not only generates more green energy but also reduces the risk of localized flooding, as the reservoirs have greater capacity to accommodate additional water.

In the absence of terrestrial connectivity, the hydrology stations rely on satellite IoT connectivity for transmitting real-time data to the operations center. They utilize Inmarsat BGAN M2M. The cost of data transmission is managed through edge computing, which allows for increased transmission frequency to every 15 minutes when data falls outside normal parameters. Under normal conditions, data is transmitted every 3 hours, optimizing the use of satellite resources.

This combination of remote hydrology stations and satellite connectivity enables RWE to effectively monitor environmental conditions, harness renewable energy, and mitigate the risk of flooding in an area where traditional terrestrial communication infrastructure is unavailable.

In conclusion, the areas that would benefit the most from IoT to address sustainable development goals often lack access to terrestrial networks due to various challenges. These regions, particularly in Africa, Asia, and Oceania, are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change such as rising sea levels, droughts, and floods.

To bridge this digital divide, we need to explore connectivity solutions that are affordable, resilient, and easy to deploy. Currently, options like LoRaWAN and satellite IoT, both separately and in combination, offer viable solutions. It’s also promising to witness the advancements in innovations that integrate satellite and cellular networks, which hold potential for the future.

By embracing low-cost and robust connectivity solutions, we can extend the benefits of IoT to underserved areas, enabling them to address sustainable development challenges and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Would you like to know more?

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