LPWA: Which way to go for IoT?

Growing Enterprise Revenues, Network Futures

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The LPWA market is highly fragmented, and telcos need to decide now which LPWA technologies to provide as part of their IoT portfolio. This report examines different LPWA technologies and use-cases, providing analysis to help telcos choose which ones are right for them.

Introduction: Why is LPWA important?

The Internet of Things (IoT) space is huge and incredibly diverse. It spans everything from remote-control of commercial drones, to consumer wearables, in-building sensors and smart electricity metering. It has the potential to improve cities’ safety, industrial productivity and enhance human health and welfare. Each area has its own characteristics in terms of connectivity, management, platform and security requirements.

This briefing report focuses on “narrowband”, long-distance IoT connectivity – typically applications which operate at speeds of 1Mbit/s or less, and perhaps only transmit a few kilobytes per day. That contrasts with the high-speed, low-latency connections IoT connections that people reference for wearables like AR headsets, or those streaming real-time telemetry and cloud-access, from complex devices like robots or huge arrays of sensors.

It is frequently said that connectivity represents only a small percentage of the overall revenue and value opportunity around IoT. Yet while that is, objectively, true, it ignores the anchoring and potential “pull-through” on other layers, especially for LPWA and narrowband access, where optimisation for power consumption and coverage is critical for many use-cases. Provision of connectivity to a device or application gives the provider (or owner) a head-start on exploiting the entire solution stack, for example in terms of collection of operational data for machine-learning and analytics.

Against that backdrop, it is understandable why telcos and their vendors and industry bodies are putting so much attention on IoT-centric networking. That encompasses everything from 5G headline use-cases about ultra-low latency connections, through to the desire to manage smart homes and cities’ infrastructure, or very simple sensors.

It is already clear that no one single technology – or even two or three – can cover everything to do with IoT. There are too many dimensions – between 5 and 10 important ones can be identified (see page 19 of the report) – which leads to a vast set of combinations. No vendor, and no operator, will be able to optimally cover everything, while for any given problem there is likely to be an overlap of “reasonable” solutions.

An important part of the mix, which STL Partners has considered before in 2016 is for low-power, wide-area LPWA connectivity. This is envisaged to connect many of the “billions” of endpoints which are widely anticipated – inexpensive sensors, actuators, personal devices, tags and other gadgets – and especially those spread over large distances (think 100s of metres, up to 10s of kilometres or more).

Typical LPWA / narrowband applications

In particular, LPWA focuses on low-bandwidth products, rather than those needing enough speed for video or rich telemetry to/from the cloud. Most, but not all, LPWA applications are fairly tolerant of delay/latency – temperature sensors or street-lights don’t need millisecond response times – but security may still be very important.

They need to be simple to deploy, inexpensive, energy-efficient, low-maintenance and use radio technology suitable for hard-to-reach locations. Most of the new LPWA networks can connect many end devices via a single base station, usually over a long (1-10km) distance. This brings trade-offs, however: slower data transmission rates and less-frequent updates/messages.

  • New cycle-sharing services, where the bikes don’t need special racks, but have remote-controlled padlocks and can be left/picked-up (and tracked) anywhere in an urban area.
  • Smart electricity/gas meters for homes – which may be in basements, or wherever the pipes/wires enter the building.
  • Asset-tracking, such as attaching beacons to expensive tools on large sites.
  • Smart lighting systems for cities, where lamp-posts can be switched on remotely – but also house sensors (e.g. for weather or traffic) which report back data to a central system.
  • Supply-chain management, such as monitoring of shipments of pharmaceuticals from manufacture to dispensary.

Shared bicycles’ locks have requirements for mobility & long battery life

LPWA applications

Key LPWA technologies & deployments

There are currently four main LPWA technologies that dominate IoT deployments and discussion: SigFox, LoRaWAN, NB-IoT and LTE-M (sometimes called LTE Cat-M1). There are also a number of other less-prominent solutions, which can be important for certain niches. Various hybrids and combinations are possible as well – plus many short-range solutions like Wi-Fi, ZigBee and Bluetooth, which are outside the main scope of discussion here.

The main four include two that are endorsed by the mobile industry “establishment”, as they are 3GPP standards that fit into the broader 4G family. In most cases, they are intended to work in dedicated (licensed) spectrum bands, typical for most mobile networks. The cellular LPWA variants include:

LTE-M: This is essentially a de-tuned, cheaper, lower-power version of “normal” LTE. It can also support VoLTE voice communications. It is focused on mid-range speeds of up to 1Mbit/s. An earlier version of LTE designed for M2M was called LTE-Cat1, although it is not in widespread use.

NB-IoT: This is 3GPP’s first attempt at an ultra-low power, long battery-life standard. The NB stands for Narrowband, meaning below 100kbit/s data speeds, and often considerably less than that. This means can fit into quite small slices of spectrum.

EC-GSM: As well LTE-M and NB-IoT, 3GPP is also working on a more-modern version of 2G connectivity, especially suitable for countries or rural regions which do not yet have 4G coverage, yet need an improved version of GPRS M2M, for low-power applications like agriculture. It has had little traction so far.

5G “Massive” MTC: One of the main promised use-cases of 5G networks is for ultra-dense, low- power IoT networks – potentially tens of thousands of nodes per cell, or even more. This is commonly referred to as “massive IoT” or MTC (machine-type communications). While there may be evolution of NB-IoT towards that (e.g. NB-IoT2), the full 5G version is only likely to emerge in 2020 or beyond.

Outside of the “mainstream” cellular-industry IoT connectivity technologies created by 3GPP, there is a wide variety of other options. Some of these have been created by individual vendors which retain core rights to the IPR, while others have been standardised by other IT/networking bodies such as IEEE. Mostly, they work in unlicensed spectrum – which makes them cheaper to deploy (especially in limited areas), but risks interference.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction: Why is LPWA important?
  • Typical LPWA / narrowband applications
  • Key LPWA technologies & deployment
  • Status and deployments
  • LoRa / LoRaWAN
  • SigFox
  • Strategic considerations
  • Multiple dimensions determine the “best” LPWA for each use
  • LPWA delivery models: Service, private, solution or other?
  • Spectrum considerations
  • IoT developers and ecosystem
  • Hybrid and multiple networks
  • Conclusions and recommendations
  • Vertical solutions?
  • Conclusions

Technologies and industry terms referenced include: , , , , , ,