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LPWA: The first network technology designed for IoT

When the idea of the internet of things first started gaining traction, the wireless network technologies that existed to support it were not designed with IoT in mind. These technologies — primarily 2G, 3G, 4G and LTE cellular technologies, wireless local area network technologies such as Wi-Fi, and short-range personal area network technologies (such as Zigbee and Bluetooth) — were primarily focused on discretely connecting specific, high-data devices to voice or data networks with little thought given to the power required to transmit the data.

What designers of these network technologies did not envision was a world of millions of tiny, low-data, low-power embedded devices whose purpose was to connect previously isolated physical “things” to the internet for data exchange and control — in other words, IoT. Yet, despite not having a network technology designed specifically for it, IoT has still managed to use existing network technologies to create a massive market, with Gartner estimating that 8.4 billion connected things will be in use in 2017, and total spending on endpoints and services will reach $2 trillion this year. Imagine how big IoT could become if a wireless network technology was built that could deliver broad levels of coverage for low-cost, low-energy devices? Such a network technology would enable us to truly realize the original vision of IoT — being able to connect everything to the internet, everywhere, all the time.

Imagine no more. With the arrival of low-power, wide area (LPWA) network standards — specifically CAT-M1/LTE-M, CAT-NB1/NB-IoT, and EG-GSM — and the technology needed to support these standards, IoT finally has a set of network technologies it can truly call its own. LPWA is designed to meet the core needs of IoT applications, with market-changing step function improvements in device and service costs (50% lower than broadband LTE), current requirements (more than 100 times lower power than broadband LTE), and coverage (five-10 times better coverage than broadband LTE).

LPWA technologies significantly lower device and service costs, making it economical to embed IoT devices in a host of new things. Its exponentially lower power needs allow IoT device manufacturers to achieve battery lives of 10 years or more. Also, LPWA’s dramatically broader coverage allows IoT devices to be placed underground, in remote areas and other places where coverage issues were previously a problem. In addition, there is no need to build a new cellular wireless infrastructure from scratch to support LPWA technologies — for the most part, they can be rolled out with just software upgrades to existing infrastructure.

Moreover, unlike the proprietary LPWA solutions that have grown by fits and starts over the past few years, these widely accepted standards are supported by the major wireless carriers. This support means that IoT application providers can adopt these standardized LPWA technologies without fearing that the ecosystem and network coverage needed to enable mass adoption of their applications will fail to materialize. With the arrival of these widely adopted LPWA standards, and the rollout of LPWA by major carriers starting this year, the IoT industry finally has the low-cost, low-current, broad coverage network technologies that its application developers have been dreaming about for years.

What will this mean for IoT? It means that IoT developers will finally have the network technology they need to develop new or enhanced energy, transportation, healthcare, smart city, agricultural, consumer and other IoT applications that fully realize the original promise of the IoT — making our world more sustainable, safer and more productive.

This includes water management IoT applications that preserve water, our most important natural resource. In an era of climate change, we can use IoT to optimize water use and reduce water waste over hundreds of acres of farmland in the rural countryside or across miles of water mains and pipes in a large metropolitan area. It means energy IoT applications that allow us to continue to make our energy cleaner, cheaper and more reliable by going one step beyond smart meters to monitor and control practically any energy using device that can be ramped up or down, including pool pumps, hot water heaters, air conditioners, EV chargers and residential battery-based energy storage systems. By controlling and optimizing these and other distributed energy resources, we can balance out peaks and dips in intermittent renewable energy generation, allowing us to integrate more renewables into the grid. The rise of LPWA also means inexpensive, wearable devices that provide a constant, always-on connection to cloud services, helping hospitals make sure discharged patients are healthy and parents ensure their children are safe at home.

Of course, the applications that might be the most game-changing and exciting are the ones we have not even thought of yet. LPWA provides a platform for fostering innovation that changes the way we work and play every day — just like PC and Ethernet technologies in the ’80s and ’90s and smartphone and cellular technologies in the ’00s and ’10s.

Like these technologies, IoT has grown from small, at times clunky (remember hobby PCs and brick-like cell phones) to become an advanced, global industry that is transforming the way we live. With a new network technology — LPWA — designed specifically with it in mind, IoT will be able to take another giant step forward, with low-cost, low-power, wide-coverage applications that can connect all of our things to the internet, and in so doing allow us to build a better world.

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