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LPWAN technology: Can CatM1, CatNB1 and LoRaWAN play nice together?

As LTE CatM1 and NB1 are progressively deployed by cellular operators — like Verizon’s recently announced joint initiative with Qualcomm leveraging Cat M1 LTE modems — some suggest that this implies the extinction of other low-power wide area network (LPWAN) technologies like LoRaWAN, a technology intended for connecting things wirelessly over ranges of up to 15km with battery life of up to 10 years in regional, national or global networks.

More and more major telecom operators, however, are deploying or planning to use the technologies in parallel, including Orange, Swisscom, Proximus, APT, KPN, Bouygues and others. As we move more into the age of the internet of things in industrial and consumer settings, this collaboration of both 3GPP technologies and LPWAN may be the right approach.

Obviously, none of these operators have taken the decision to deploy LoRaWAN lightly. They see 3GPP technologies — like LTE standards and others — and LoRaWAN technologies as complementary. While both the public and private sector adopt these technologies, here are a few things to consider about the benefits and uses cases of both, and about the inherent flaw in the system that needs to be remedied.

Benefits of LPWAN

Broadly speaking, LPWAN is defined as a market segment where lowest cost and lowest power consumption are the key selection criteria for the communication technology. For realistic LPWAN use cases, with a few tens of messages per day, the power consumption performance of LoRaWAN is five times better than CatNB1 (currently the 3GPP state of the art, requiring R13 networks), and the peak-current performance is an order of magnitude lower. Thanks to the characteristics of the ultra-low leak current batteries used in most devices with a 10 year plus battery life, this translates into an order of magnitude difference in battery size, and therefore total cost of ownership, in favor of LoRaWAN. In other words, if you want to power your things with little cost and little energy output, LoRaWAN is often the way to go.

Another important factor is that IoT is only marginally a market for national telco operators. Most IoT applications, on the other hand, are expected to be deployed in a “campus” scenario: airports, smart factories, smart cities, smart buildings, smart agriculture, etc. The use cases in this segment are expected to be dense deployments (thousands of devices in a relatively small area), which will be served from on-site dedicated LPWAN base stations. Such use cases are much easier to deploy and manage with unlicensed spectrum technologies, like LPWAN.

Benefits of 3GPP technologies

Of course this does not mean that all IoT applications will choose LPWAN or specifically LoRaWAN. In many cases, especially consumer, everyday cases, LPWAN isn’t the best technology for the job. Whenever a device needs to take a picture or to transmit hundreds of kilobytes of data, for instance, 3GPP technologies or Wi-Fi will be used, which could be used for things like wearables, including a runner’s Fitbit. 3GPP technologies can also help network providers like Verizon extend their business models to include not only better connectivity but compute capabilities that can bring them into new areas like retail point-of-sale and asset tracking.

Collaboration of both

In many cases, LPWAN and LTE Cat1 will collaborate. For example, an LPWAN campus base station serving thousands of smoke detectors may use LTE Cat 1 as a backhaul technology and LoRaWAN to connect to individual devices. A sensor package may send back an abnormal data reading over LoRaWAN, and be “woken” to capture a snippet of local video, which will then be streamed back over LTE Cat1.

OSS/BSS redesign needed

With all this said, connectivity capability is not the real, key issue; the OSS/BSS systems and ecosystem management are. How can operators or enterprise customers manage hundreds of millions of devices, tens of thousands of applications contributed by hundreds of companies and petabytes of data efficiently enough to create a viable ecosystem? How can the millions of things, speaking only occasionally and very quietly, coexist in a network that is also host to talkative humans, bent on maxing out their bandwidth with Netflix on the move, lifeblogging with Persicope, and Pokemon Go? That’s a question we’ll return to in a future article.

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