Some operators and vendors insist that, once the 3GPP’s Narrowband-IoT standard is widely deployed, from late 2016, the specialized LPWA (low power wide area) networks will disappear into a niche.
There will certainly be consolidation – there are too many platforms for all of them to survive in the public access mainstream, though some may hang on in private networks. But if the LPWA players can come together to support some common frameworks and allow interoperability, there is a strong possibility that some of the technologies which are being deployed now – LoRa, Sigfox, Telensa and so on – will have a long life, and perhaps gain a migration path into future 5G platforms.
As in broadband data and even mobile voice, an unlicensed spectrum option will be essential – to increase the available pool of spectrum; and to lower barriers to entry for a variety of service providers, thus encouraging proliferation of machine-to-machine services of many kinds. WiFi will hope to provide that unlicensed spectrum platform in narrowband M2M communications as it has in broadband, but its HALOW specification is behind the pack (on a similar timescale with NB-IoT, though the 3GPP system is already benefiting from a growing list of operator trials).
For now, certainly, the proprietary LPWA systems are hanging on in there. Several large cellular operators, including SK Telecom of Korea – also an early triallist and exponent of NB-IoT – have announced large-scale projects based around the existing M2M platforms. This indicates that LPWA roll-outs, despite looming NB-IoT, will not be confined to non-MNOs with no licensed spectrum option, but will be used within a patchwork of networks by cellular providers too, in the same way that WiFi is integrated into their mobile broadband plans. Technologies like LoRa give MNOs a relatively low cost way to move into new IoT services right now, and perhaps to free up their GSM spectrum, the main carrier of the MNOs’ existing M2M activity.
Nordic operator Tele2 (see separate item) illustrates well the mixture of connectivity options and tools which operators will adopt to build M2M services and revenues. SK Telecom is building a nationwide LoRa network, sourced from Samsung. The first city, Daego – Korea’s fourth largest – will go live this month, supporting services such as smart lighting and weather collection.
The largest Korean cellco has said it will invest &84m in IoT projects, from network roll-outs to its own modules, between now and 2019. Like Orange and others, it is planning LoRa and LTE deployments in parallel, addressing different applications according to their urgency, QoS requirements and other criteria. Eventually, operators like Orange have talked about migrating to a virtualized multi-network platform which will enable their first generation roll-outs to converge and interoperate, though that may well be a 5G iteration.
Another operator, Tata Communications of India, is also using LoRa for its M2M build-out in major cities, starting with New Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru. While SK Telecom says its deployment will be the world’s first nationwide IoT network, Tata insists its project will result in the largest, in terms of numbers of devices connected to it.
Amit Sinha Roy, VP of marketing and strategy, said the target is to cover almost 400m people though he acknowledged that “the traditional known models are changing and the use cases and revenue models of IoT have to evolve”. He added: “We decided to go for LoRa because interoperability is important for the efficient functioning of the IoT network.”
LoRa is not fully open, as the Weightless standard aimed to be, and its intellectual property is in the hands of its originator and major chip supplier Semtech. But it has a broad Alliance behind it which carries out interoperability testing and certification; a growing set of APIs and other higher layer technologies; and a business model which aligns better with cellular strategies than some of the other LPWA systems like Sigfox and Ingenu. They offer a full managed service approach while with LoRa, MNOs can control their own build-outs and devices, and work on future interworking with LTE.
Proprietary systems have become de facto standards before, and Microchip has given LoRa a boost in that direction with an end-to-end development kit. It contains two LoRa sensor nodes, a LoRaWAN gateway, pre-configured radio modules for 868 MHz or 915 MHz, and local server software.
This saves developers from having to integrate elements from different vendors like gateways, cloud services and mobile apps themselves. Steve Caldwell, general manager of Microchip’s wireless solutions group, told EETimes: “For a LoRa network to work a node must talk to a gateway, which talks to a network server. In the past these elements have involved separate development kits with different providers. To help the ecosystem grow, Microchip felt there needed to be a one-stop solution for developers.”
It is not just LoRa which is standing up robustly to the coming threat of NB-IoT. Sigfox has announced that Finland has become the nineteenth country to adopt its technology, with a new company called Connected Finland adopting Sigfox to deploy networks in large cities, and eventually to cover 85% of the population.
And Sigfox is also working with video game veteran Atari, developing connected devices that runs over the French firm’s network. Those products are currently under wraps, but there are currently 10 different ideas in development, according to Atari CEO Fred Chesnais. The first will be a geolocational luggage tracker, due to appear in the fall, with Sigfox saying its LPWAN tech will be providing location, status reports and button functions to those who license the brand. The mass market categories Atari identifies include automotive (telematics, tracking, panic buttons), family (child tracking, personal safety alarms, asset tagging), pet tracking, sports (activity and route tracking), and travel (luggage monitoring).
Chesnais is very confident in the plan, saying that Atari’s brand is well-suited to being used outside of its traditional games market, and noting that the most ardent Atari users, raised in the 1980s, are now heads of households, with disposable income to spend on such devices.
As it stands, Atari sells very few physical products, mostly just its range of Flashback consoles. It has been licensing its intellectual property, mostly its brand, to companies looking to profit from the association of a video game pioneer – which is currently owned by Atari SA (formerly Infogrames Entertainment), which acquired the company from Hasbro in 2001, and has operated under the Atari brand since 2009. The company has over 100 partners in its various studios – which take on the different apps and ventures, in cooperation with Atari, in amuch the same way that movie and content creators operate, and a plan Atari is extending to its IoT devices.
“Sigfox is transforming the way people are connecting to their objects in a simple and intuitive way. By partnering together and using Sigfox’s dedicated IoT connectivity, we are going to create amazing products with our brand,” said Chesnais, in the official announcement. “We look forward to our collaboration, and releasing new products to the mass market on a global scale.”