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Low Power Wide Area Networks: The new backbone for the Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IoT) is now officially past its hype, dropping out from the recent Gartner cycle after occupying the top spot for the past two years. It is set to become the new normal - the race is now on to connect the promised next 25bn of devices to the Internet.

LPWAN Overview

The Internet of Things (IoT) is now officially past its hype, dropping out from the recent Gartner cycle after occupying the top spot for the past two years. It is set to become the new normal - the race is now on to connect the promised next 25bn of devices to the Internet. This overambitious target looks even more questionable with the connectivity choices available. Wires and short range communications are today the most dominant form of IoT connectivity and it is difficult to imagine how these will deliver the necessary scale and deployment simplicity to cover all cities and the remotest corners of our planet.

Long range wireless communication options have so far been mainly limited to cellular modems. Their costs and power demands don’t make them acceptable for many application demands where battery powered operation is essential and equipment and connectivity costs must be low to justify a real business case.  

Low power wide area networks (LPWAN) have recently emerged as a notable alternative to provide cost-effective wide area connectivity for the IoT. Several French companies were spearheading this technology movement, most notably Cycleo and Sigfox both founded in 2009. Cycleo, the company behind the LoRa technology has been bought by SEMTECH for a modest $5m – SIGFOX managed three years later to get a more generous deal by acquiring $115m in venture capital, transforming LPWAN overnight into a serious IoT connectivity contender.

Also the UK had its claim to fame in the form of Neul , a company initially developing LPWAN technology for TV white space. Telco giant Huawei bought Neul for $25m in 2014, making its technology the basis of a recently approved 3GPP standard for IoT communication also known as Narrow Band IoT (NB-IoT).

So what makes LPWAN so different from other existing technologies and what service properties do they actually offer? The figure below shows how LPWAN fits into the existing connectivity standards landscape. It outlines range and data rate limitations of the different technologies. Compared to other technologies, LPWANs offer low energy consumption and extended coverage, but are trading this off by supporting only lower data rates. An extremely high link budget offers the opportunity for deep indoor penetration. This allows LPWAN technologies to connect devices reliably inside of building and even underground in cellars or along side water distribution systems.

Possible LPWAN services

The distinct technical properties of LPWAN networks together with the favourable economic considerations such as low price point for end devices and data connection charges can enable novel business cases in different sectors, which were initially not commercially viable with traditional cellular or short range connectivity. This will lead to an organic growth of new services in different sectors. The majority of LPWAN based services however will come initially from established M2M services that are currently offered via cellular or short range connectivity, as they can be offered more efficiently and cost effective via LPWAN. Image of LPWAN Application figure  

So, what services are LPWANs best suited for? On a generic level, LPWANs are able to support all services that require infrequent up-link message delivery of smaller message payloads. Depending on the application needs, LPWAN devices can last up to 10 years on batteries – this significantly increases the range of deployment scenarios and enables new business cases that were previously too costly because of the need of human intervention, e.g. the replacement of batteries. Most LPWAN technologies also allow downlink message transmissions. An important consideration of LPWANs is that battery lifetime increases with number of message and latency requirements. The latter is critical if a device needs to respond quickly to a request from the network. LPWANs also offer deep indoor penetration due to very high link budgets, extending potential use cases even to cellars and underground environments.

An overview of possible LPWAN applications can be found in the figure below (click here for a bigger version). LPWAN services can provide value in many sectors. While the potential list is very long, currently most common use cases are smart metering, tank monitoring and delivery automation, asset tracking (GPS and non-GPS) both real time and recovery, home alarm systems, management of lights on streets and commercial buildings, precision agriculture and life stock monitoring as well as more simple applications such as smart buttons.

Current contenders

LPWAN technologies come in many shapes or forms – most are based on proprietary radio technologies initially developed by individual companies which later created an eco-system of stakeholders around their wireless propositions to enable end-to-end service delivery. The extent of these technology ecosystems and the openness of them greatly varies.

Sigfox is maybe currently the most widely deployed LPWAN technology, and operates a model where the network technology is tightly controlled by a single company. Sigfox uses an exclusive franchise model to work with a single local network operator per country to provide a national LPWAN network. The device and service ecosystem is however more diverse with multiple device manufactures and solutions providers.

Some technologies such as Telensa’s Ultra Narrow Band (UNB) do not have an ecosystem developed around them. The company uses its own proprietary technology to provide LPWAN connectivity services for its own IoT solutions. Telensa’s main business is to provide services such as smart management of street lighting. NWave is another example where the ecosystem is constrained to a few players mainly focusing on partners on the IoT service provision. NWave is the sole supplier of both network and connectivity modules, but offers these to application partners to jointly delivery end-to-end services. A similar proprietary technology is RPMA by Ingenu , which operates various private networks across different countries. It is now aiming at creating a public network in the US.

In contrast to the examples above, LoRaWAN, NB-IoT and LTE CAT-M represent more open standards driven ecosystems. LoRaWAN is pushed by the LoRa Alliance, which now has over 400 members that are part of the entire value chain. While the underlying wireless technology called LoRa is owned by a single company (SEMTECH), the ecosystem includes a variety of different chip and module manufacturers, device manufacturers, base station and network server vendors and service providers. Both NB-IoT and LTE CAT-M are technologies specified by 3GPP, a global initiative bringing together all main mobile network vendors and operators. The result is that LoRaWAN and 3GPP foster a more competitive market place of multi-vendor solutions. Another open ecosystem is Weightless– initially various Weightless standards existed, however it seems that only Weightless-P has survived the battle.

All these LPWAN technologies share similar characteristics but there are some differences in their properties and and their operations. The table below provides an overview of the different technologies and their key operating characteristics.

LORA-WAN

SigFox

NBIoT

CATM1

RPMA

NWave

Weightless -P

Modulation DSS with chirp

UNB/ GFSK/ BPSK

OFDMA/
SC-FDMA


OFDMA/
SC-FDMA

RPMA

DBPSK

FDMA+TDMA 

Frequency 868/
902-928Mhz
868/915 MHz In band LTE, guard band and stand alone In band LTE 2.4GHz 315/433/ 470/868/915MHz 
 169/433/470/780/868/915/923MHz
Coverage 153-161 dB 149-161 dB 164dB 155.7dB 168-172dB n/a n/a
Bandwidth 125kHz 100Hz (EU) 180kHz 1.08MHz 1Mhz n/a 12.5Khz
Data rate 0.3 to 50 kbps 100bps 50kbps 1Mbps 624 Kbps DL
156 Kbps UL
100bps 0.2 to 100kps
Max msg / day unlimited 140 uplink
4 downlink
n/a unlimited n/a unlimited n/a

Current deployment status across the globe

Most LPWAN technologies have a far lower cost of ownership than traditional cellular networks and borrow themselves to be used both as private or public network deployments. This low cost of ownership enables more disruption by allowing new players to assume the role of network operators and by fostering the emergence of new business model constellations along the value chain. For example, companies such as Senet in the US started to deploy private networks for specific LPWAN service use cases (tank level monitoring) but found themselves opening up their networks to other IoT service providers to generate additional revenue. Now Senet is rolling out a country wide public LoRaWAN network.

At the moment, SIGFOX is the network with the largest geographic coverage, announcing ongoing network deployments in 26 countries. Apart from several European countries, the coverage in the other countries is however still patchy. While SIGFOX is available throughout France and Spain, the UK Sigfox operator Arqiva currently only provides connectivity in 12 UK cities.

LoRaWAN seems to be quickly catching up with national public network rollouts ongoing in the US, various European (France, Switzerland, Belgium, Netherlands) and Asian (India, Japan, South Kora) countries. Unlike SIGFOX that allows only a single operator per country model, LoRaWAN is well suited to be used for private network deployments, similar to Wifi. Enterprise networks are the most dominant form currently of LoRaWAN deployments.  

Other networks of notable deployment are Ingena and Telensa. Ingenu has initially focused on deployments of private networks for larger customers, but has now joined the public network race in the US. Telensa for example leads on the global deployments for a specific vertical of smart streetlighting , however this has little relevancy in enabling other IoT applications for third parties.

The final word in this section goes to NB-IoT and LTE-M, both standards that have only been ratified this summer. Due to the lack of maturity of the vendor ecosystem, only smaller technology pilots have so far taken place with selected mobile network operators. The first NB-IoT rollouts have been announced for 2017. In the longer run, NB-IoT is expected to come strong in particular for public network deployments as it allows telecom operators with existing LTE network investments to enable NB-IoT operation via a software upgrade. While operators may still have to battle with multi-vendor issues it will simplify the rollout by removing the dependency of additional HW installations.  

Current market issues

Despite all the buzz that LPWAN is currently experiencing, the market is far from mature and faces several barriers in order to fulfil its growth potential. While analysts promise cumulative annual growth rates of over 100% until 2020, the fragmented LPWAN landscape introduces significant uncertainty that is likely to impact the speed of market expansion. As long as there are no clear winners on the market, businesses are reluctant to make major investments in one of the technologies – this applies to operators, LPWAN solutions providers and end users.

Even if various technologies are likely to last for long, there are still significant uncertainties about their performance due to a lack of real world testing at scale. Much of the knowledge about the performance of different technologies is still either based on data sheets of vendors or derived from smaller scale lab tests. There is little objective evidence available to support the claims of operation of these protocols for many end devices in realistic settings. Also more direct comparative benchmarks are needed to better understand the strengths and trade-offs of the various available LPWAN technologies.

Another barrier is the lack of clarity around LPWAN business models, which varies depending on the LPWAN technology choices. Finally, further complex certification procedures for some LPWAN networks and upfront costs/investments make it more difficult for LPWAN device manufacturers to enter the market. 

How to become active in the UK using LPWAN technologies

Regardless of some of the market’s uncertainties mentioned above, LPWANs represent an exciting opportunity for UK businesses. For device manufacturers and service providers it offers new possibilities to provide disruptive end-to-end IoT solutions for a globally emerging market. For end users and early adopters these solutions can provide significant cost savings, efficiencies and new business insights that will allow them to gain a competitive advantage. In countries where LPWAN networks are more widely available, businesses of all sizes are already developing and deploying LPWAN solutions. In order to encourage UK businesses to join the global race, Digital Catapult has set up Things Connected , an innovation support programme for LPWAN enabled products and services. To learn more about it, please contact us or come to one of our monthly LPWAN meetup events.

Photo of Alex Gluhak   Alex Gluhak is the lead technologist for IoT at the Digital Catapult, setting the technology directions in the area of IoT and the creation of strategic programmes and their delivery. He has 15 years of R&D experience in academia and industry. Since 2006 he is active in the area of mobile computing and IoT at companies such as Intel Labs and Ericsson. His current work focuses on lowering barriers for innovation around Low Power Wide Area Networks and establishing common market places for IoT data across heterogeneous IoT platforms. Alex is the technical lead of the Digital Catapult Things Connected programme.