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Understanding which flavor of LPWAN is right for you

The rise of the internet of things represents a major milestone in the evolution of the internet as connections move beyond traditional computing devices (PCs, phones and tablets), to connecting billions of every day devices — from trash cans to thermostats. In fact, according to the Boston Consulting Group, it’s estimated that the value of the IoT market will reach an astronomical $267 billion by 2020.

This does, however, require that the complexity and cost of connecting tens of billions of things becomes easy and cheap enough to connect that trash can. This opportunity and challenge has spurred innovations in communications technology and a number of choices are available for businesses and consumers to connect these simple, low cost devices.

The rise of LPWAN

One such group of technologies is low-power WAN (LPWAN), a wireless wide area network technology specialized for connecting devices like trash cans, parking meters, pet trackers and soil sensors.

More specifically, LPWAN technologies are designed for machine-to-machine networking environments and have lower power requirements, longer range and lower costs than traditional mobile networks. In addition, the data transfer rates are very low, as is the power consumption of the connected devices, meaning they can operate at a lower cost, with greater power efficiency. This also means the networks are able to support more devices over a larger coverage area than traditional consumer mobile technologies.

As a result, LPWANs enable a much wider range of connected things, including ones which have previously been constrained by budgetary and power issues, fueling an exponential growth in IoT applications. In fact, according to ABI Research, approximately 4 billion IoT devices will rely on LPWAN technologies by 2025, making it the fastest growing connectivity segment in the market.

There are a number of options when it comes to LPWAN technologies and businesses must now choose among them based on their specific needs. The first and most important choice businesses need to make is whether to use licensed or unlicensed LPWAN.

Licensed vs. unlicensed LPWAN

Licensed LPWANs run on public cellular networks which use the licensed radio spectrum and support the GSM and 3GPP standards. There are over 900 mobile operators around that world that operate networks that support those standards, covering the broadest swath of the globe where people live and businesses operate. These standards also facilitate the “mobility” among the networks, making it easy for devices to “roam” from one network to another seamlessly and instantaneously. Finally, the fact that the use of any one portion of the radio spectrum has to be exclusively licensed by individual operators means that connections made on any one of them will give devices a greater level of exclusivity to connect. This makes it more secure and reliable.

So to net it out, business that are looking for flexibility on where in the world their devices can connect, and want to ensure those devices can seamlessly move from one network to another, often at high speeds, would benefit from using licensed LPWAN technologies.

Unlicensed LPWANs, on the other hand, use radio spectrum that is unlicensed and can be used by anyone without exclusivity. While this makes it easy for an organization outside the community of the 900 plus mobile operators to establish their own private network, it does carry the risk that another organization or entity could use that same spectrum for a different network. That could result in interference among devices that are connecting on separate networks using the same portion of the radio spectrum.

Furthermore, unlicensed LPWAN isn’t designed to handle seamless mobility at high speeds, such as a truck that is reporting its telematics data at highway speeds. Rather, it is better suited for applications like a rural farm where an unlicensed LPWA network is needed for the sole purpose of connecting devices in that farm, and where a public LPWA network is not available.

Types of licensed LPWAN include:

  • Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) — A standards-based LPWA technology developed to enable a wide range of new IoT devices and services. NB-IoT significantly improves the power consumption of user devices, system capacity and spectrum efficiency, especially in deep coverage. Battery life of more than 10 years can be supported for a wide range of use cases. It leverages the existing infrastructure of LTE and GSM network providers to facilitate low bandwidth communications for IoT devices.
  • LTE-M — Part of Release 13 of the 3GPP standard, LTE-M aims to lower power consumption, reduce device complexity and cost, and provide deeper coverage to reach challenging locations (e.g., deep inside buildings). This standard will improve upon NB-IoT in terms of bandwidth. It also boasts the highest security of LPWAN technologies.

Even though LTE-M and NB-IoT are both licensed LPWAN options, there are still some significant differences businesses need to be aware of. For example, LTE-M has broader characteristics than NB-IoT. Notably it has higher data rates so is able to transfer information faster and seamlessly at vehicular speeds, making it more open to supporting full mobility, while NB-IoT is better suited to nomadic mobility — identifying objects within a predefined space — thus sharing similar characteristics with some of the unlicensed options.

Unlicensed LPWAN

Turning to the unlicensed space, these technologies tend to be used in smaller environments where mobility is not a requirement. For example, a farmer with the need for wide area coverage across a 10-15 square mile plot of land to collect data from the various stationary sensors and devices — on fence posts, tractors, irrigation systems, etc. — would use unlicensed LPWAN because it is cheaper and more cost effective for location and status update needs.

Examples of unlicensed LPWAN include:

  • LoRaWAN — A low-power wide area network specification intended for wireless battery operated things in a regional, national or global network. LoRaWAN targets key requirements of IoT such as secure bidirectional communication, mobility and localization services. The LoRaWAN specification provides seamless interoperability among smart things without the need of complex local installations and gives freedom back to the user, developer and businesses rolling out IoT.
  • Sigfox — A narrowband (or ultra-narrowband) technology, Sigfox is suited best for the lowest bandwidth applications with extremely tight energy budgets. What’s unique to Sigfox is that it is an entirely separate network for IoT devices. It operates over the sub-GHz frequency bands (868 MHz in Europe and 900 MHz in USA) and any radio provider can use it. Currently the infrastructure is up and running in Western Europe and San Francisco, with pilot programs in South America and Asia in progress.

As with differences in the licensed LPWAN space, there are also inherent differences between LoRaWAN and Sigfox in the unlicensed space. While both are more suited to the stationary use cases described above, Sigfox represents the very low end of the LPWAN spectrum with much slower download speeds and more restrictions than LoRaWAN, and with no ability to conduct over-the-air firmware upgrades, making it a “deploy and forget” technology. LoRaWAN, on the other hand, is easier to update and upgrade.

Making the right LPWAN choice

As IoT continues to evolve and more businesses come to rely on the information and insights provided for competitive advantage, it will be more important than ever for businesses to ensure they have the right IoT strategy and LPWAN technologies in place to suit their business needs.

IoT is expanding on a massive scale with more and more devices being put into play. Businesses need to ensure they have the right type of LPWAN solution in place to not only meet their business needs, but also help them more effectively manage their growing number of IoT devices to protect against potentially spiraling IoT costs that could be incurred if not managed properly.

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.

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Hi Sanjay, interesting review but not fully agnostic since Cisco is more interested by licensed band and is part of the LoRa alliance. I much prefer this comparison infographic of the ones you mention: bit.ly/4LPWAN
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Renald has a point - the distinction between licensed/unlicensed is not well correlated to roaming or the kind of mobility you describe. In fact, there is mobility (but roaming to a lesser degree) distinction between LoRa and Sigfox, both of which are in unlicensed bands!
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