How to buy in-vehicle LTE routers
Written by: James Atkinson | Published:

In-vehicle LTE routers support a range of connectivity services in the field, but there are many types, so what factors should you consider when you are looking to buy? James Atkinson reports

The advent of cellular 4G LTE networks has transformed in-vehicle mobile connectivity. The installation of 4G cellular routers in vehicles not only provides the occupants with 4G voice services, local area Wi-Fi and multiple networks, but also access to data from the internet and centralised back-office systems.

4G routers extend the edge of enterprise networks to anywhere there is adequate cellular signal coverage. Emergency services, utility, freight haulage and bus companies can track and manage their staff, assets and devices in the field more effectively by knowing exactly where they are in real time.

Broadband connectivity enables the deployment of on-board CCTV for added security, and body-worn cameras, which can stream video back to control rooms. Haulage companies can see if anyone attempts to open the back doors of a lorry, while smart IoT sensors can remotely monitor temperatures.

LTE routers can also be integrated with vehicle telemetry and fault diagnostic systems, enabling data on component monitoring and alerts, fuel usage patterns and driver behaviour to be sent from the field in real time. Early warning of faults that might keep the vehicle off the road can be prevented.

Sophisticated cloud-based network management platforms enable organisations to keep track of large fleets of vehicles, set up geofences and remotely manage and troubleshoot routers and devices more efficiently from any location. This can include the ability to carry out over-the-air upgrades of device firmware, thereby avoiding the necessity of having to return the vehicle or devices to a central base.

4G routers come in all shapes and sizes, so what should you be looking for? “There are quite a lot of router players around now coming at the market from different angles,” observes Julian de Selincourt, head of sales and marketing at Zcomax Technologies, which distributes networking products from Billion Electric among others. “For small-scale connectivity, most people use a 4G phone and hotspot it.

“But there are some big markets like buses and trains that use more sophisticated routers. Swedish firm Icomera is the number-one provider of routers for bus operators who want more than just Wi-Fi connectivity, while for the railway industry Nomad Digital is probably the leading supplier for passenger and fleet connectivity solutions.”

Multi-network routers
Top-end mission-critical 4G routers from the likes of Sierra Wireless and Cradlepoint offer Wi-Fi LANs supporting telemetry, video, e-ticketing, DVR (digital video recorder), bodycams and driver behaviour monitoring. They support mobile multi-network connectivity WANs including Wi-Fi, public cellular, private cellular, satellite and LMR. These provide access to back-office systems and databases including CAD (computer-aided dispatch), AVL (automatic vehicle location), criminal records and video management systems. The router connects to the best available signal based on pre-defined policies.

For Paul Boniface, global principal solutions architect at Cradlepoint, the first question a project manager should ask is: what do I want to achieve by putting a 4G router in the vehicle? “A router is a network connectivity device, so if they want network connectivity for a handheld device then just buy a phone with a SIM card.

“If they want to deploy two-way communication devices: do they want the devices to just communicate to the internet at large? Do they want some specific services? Does HQ need to communicate back to the devices in the vehicle? If so, there may be security implications, so you are looking at deploying VPNs and private networks.”

Single and dual modems
De Selincourt says the first question to ask is: how many users do you want to connect? “For a taxi or minibus, an entry-level E-mark [a European conformity mark] router is the way to go. But if it is a coach with 20 or more people on board then you need something more robust. You can get away with a single modem router if the bus route is fixed and you know you have coverage all along the route. But if the bus is used for different routes, you probably need a dual modem router to provide an alternative network when your primary one loses coverage.”

A single modem with dual SIMs enables you to switch to a second mobile operator if your primary operator’s coverage is poor in certain areas. Built-in failover systems mean the router will automatically switch over to the second operator. For even more assurance, dual modems supporting four SIMs increases resilience and provides wider bandwidth by enabling load balancing between the multiple networks.

Boniface argues that emergency services vehicles do need dual modems. “If they lose connectivity then they lose all digital tracing and secure systems, so network downtime is critical to them, but in 75-80 per cent of situations, the customer could probably live without it.”

Some bus operators do just want to offer a basic Wi-Fi service. “But if you [are] a large bus operator you will want a software package on top to allow you to capture email and IP addresses, have a splash page, run promos and push ads much like a hotel Wi-Fi service does,” says de Selincourt.

“If you have a captive portal you can prevent passengers from looking at things they shouldn’t on the internet, potentially upsetting other passengers. A router like the Billion M500 also offers bandwidth control, so you can stop someone from hogging all the bandwidth if they are streaming,” he adds.

Bus operators can also access an additional revenue stream by offering advertisers space on a captive portal Wi-Fi, perhaps promoting attractions in the locations on the bus’s route. Or they might want to add WAN services for streaming films. But this needs a more sophisticated router.

Boniface cites the example of how bus companies in South Africa use captive portals on their Wi-Fi service. “There is a lack of banking facilities in South Africa. If you want to access the internet on the bus you have to watch a video from a bank explaining what it can do for you. The bus company can sell these to the banks or education authorities promoting literacy programmes.”

Ruggedisation
Cheaper routers rarely support more than five to eight clients, but mid-range to top-end models will support anything from 30 to 128 simultaneous client connections. A decent model will also have been MIL-STD tested for resistance to shock and vibration and have a reasonable high IP certification against dust and moisture ingress.

Other features to look out for include support for a wide input voltage range (eg, 9-36v or 9-33v) so you do not have to add an external power adapter. The router may also need to operate across a wide temperature range (-30°C to 70°C).

“If the bus is just operating locally in a temperate climate like the UK then it does not need a lot of ruggedisation. But if it is taking passengers to a Nordic country in winter where it is very cold, it must be able to withstand freezing temperatures, or conversely very hot temperatures in hot countries,” observes Boniface.

Other key features to consider are automatic power on/off with vehicle ignition and perhaps a shutdown delay, which enables the router to continue working for several hours after the ignition has been turned off. A mechanism to switch the router off if
low battery levels are detected can also be useful.

The choice of antenna is of critical importance. Phones, tablets and cheaper routers have internal antennas, which limits the continuous effectiveness of their performance, especially within metal vehicles.

An externally mounted antenna, however, can be positioned to provide the optimum signal.

Antennas
“You can use indoor panel antennas,” notes de Selincourt, “but external antennas are the way to go. One thing you can do is take a panel antenna with you on a bus route and test it. If it drops out anywhere, well, okay, maybe you need an external antenna.”

Another key feature to consider is whether you need GPS for vehicle telemetry and fleet tracking services. “If you imagine a police force with 500 vehicles, at any point five have to be brought in for maintenance service,” says Boniface. “Modern cars are pretty good and there might not be anything wrong with them, but they have to come in anyway, which means they are not available to do their job.

“But if you have vehicle telematics going over the same WAN, you can tweak and fine-tune the vehicle as and when necessary to keep it in good order. You may have just done a service on one vehicle, but suddenly oil is dripping. You may have another vehicle due for a service, but the telematics reports show nothing is wrong, so you don’t need to bring the vehicle in.”

Installation
Equipment installation is, of course, of paramount importance, although routers are pretty compact and can usually be fitted in the boot or bulkhead. A lot of thought needs to be given to the design and implementation of the wiring looms, cable runs, power connections and antennas, which will be partly dictated by what peripheral equipment and devices need to be hooked up to the router – LMR radios being a key one for emergency services vehicles.

The power supply for the router is of critical concern. A clean power supply off the vehicle battery is the favoured route, but things can get complicated if auxiliary batteries and modern smart charging systems are in place. Hybrid and electric vehicles bring additional complications as the voltages involved are much higher.

Finally, it is a good idea to conduct proof-of-concept (PoC) trials. “It goes back to the first question of what do you want to achieve?” says Boniface. “If the customer has answered that question, the PoC is easy. If they have not, the PoC may throw up new ideas and you get people going, ‘Oh, can we try that’, and they go wild on the initial scope, so PoCs need to be tightly managed.”

He adds that it is important to conduct trials with live data. “When you are looking for a mobile connectivity solution, you must try it out in the real world,” he says.

What to consider: the dos & don’ts of in-vehicle LTE router procurement

  • Do know what you want to achieve by installing a 4G router.
  • Do know how many simultaneous client connections you need to support.
  • Do know what the worst-case scenario to be thrown at the router is.
  • Do know where you are going to use them geographically (if going abroad, will you hit roaming charges?).
  • Do understand the limitations of single modem routers.

  • Don’t use portable cellular hotspot devices for professional uses.
  • Don’t just go with one vendor; conduct trials with more than one.
  • Don’t cut corners on the installation; find a quality installer.
  • Don’t ignore failover connectivity options; how critical is the connection to staff/customers?
  • Don’t underestimate just how important a good antenna sited in the right place is.

Not just for buses, trucks, trains and emergency services vehicles

Zcomax provided routers for vehicles at Heathrow Airport, which connect to a private LTE network using 3.5 and 3.6GHz spectrum from UK Broadband (now Three) and independent Wi-Fi to support ruggedised tablets and CCTV. A drone company also uses the private LTE network routers to check the top of aircraft to see if they need cleaning.

The company supplied Billion M500 4G routers and antennas for a mobile data centre that accompanies the RAF’s Typhoon squadrons. The aircraft download all their telematics readings to the data centre and the information is sent back to RAF Conningsby in Lincolnshire.

The NHS uses a mobile unit housing 20 staff for nursing recruitment drives, but their communications kept seizing up even with four consumer routers. By deploying the Billion M500 router with its dual modems and four SIM cards, they were able to load balance between the two commercial networks being used and avoid clogging up the communications.


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