New rules aim to prevent IoT devices from taking down mobile networks

Carriers are scared that sloppily written apps and chatty devices will overload their networks with signaling traffic

The dream of an Internet of things could turn into a nightmare for mobile operators, if sloppily written apps or chatty smartmeters were to overload their networks with signaling traffic. To avert such a scenario, a number of operators are backing a new set of network usage guidelines for device manufacturers and app developers.

Mobile operators don't want to be caught off guard when IoT (Internet of things) traffic takes off on a larger scale, as many of them were when smartphones became mass-market items. So the likes of AT&T, China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, NTT DoCoMo, Orange, Telefónica and Telenor Connexion are all backing the "IoT Device Connection Efficiency Guidelines," published on Monday by the GSM Association (GSMA).

The main goal of the first version of the guidelines is to ensure applications, devices and the cellular modules they are based on can communicate efficiently with networks. The modules are small computers with connectivity and GPS, for example.

"We want to make sure those devices don't become aggressive and overload the network with signalling traffic. Because if you have too many devices behaving too aggressively on the network you effectively end up with a distributed denial-of-service attack," said Stephen Bryant , CTO at Telenor Conexion, which has helped develop the guidelines.

Signalling traffic is information that helps the network communicate with devices to set up and end calls or data sessions. If there is more signalling traffic than the network can handle, users won't be able to make calls or connect to the Internet. The bandwidth reserved for signalling traffic is typically much narrower than that reserved for data. Embedded devices sending many short messages can create far greater volumes of signalling traffic than they do chargeable data, prompting the operators' concerns.

The underlying problem is that manufacturers and developers might not have the know-how needed for building products and apps for this sector, according to Daniel Collins, CTO of Jasper Technologies, which fully supports the guidelines in its cloud-based software platform.

"The guidelines aim to help developers bring their applications and devices to market faster and do so in a way that optimizes their behavior in a mobile network environment," Collins said.

Developers are recommended to build apps that aggregate data in as big a chunk as possible before compressing and sending it over the network. Developers should also use an "always-on" connectivity mechanism instead of activating and deactivating network connections. Following these rules decreases the dreaded signaling traffic.

For the module manufacturers that are experts in this field, there is now more clarity on what they need to do.

Some of them have already implemented the parts of the guidelines that concern them: "We have some modules that support this, but not all of them," said Olivier Beaujard, vice president of market development at Sierra Wireless.

At what pace and to what extent Sierra Wireless will implement the guidelines across its whole portfolio depends on how many of its customers ask for it, according to Beaujard. He would like to see the guidelines expanded to include management specifications, as well.

The guidelines were developed under the leadership of the GSMA, and are only the first step in protecting the networks.

"It's all very nice to have the guidelines, but we need some basic tests to show compliance with them. Those test requirements will be developed by the same team over the next three four months," said Shane Rooney, executive director at GSMA.

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