GSMA’s Shane Rooney looks at how LPWA networks can help in the simple and cost-effective roll-out of IoT devices.
It feels like the Internet of Things has been around for a long time, yet we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the potential of this technology and the benefits it can bring.
There have been a huge number of predictions about the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT). In fact, analyst house Gartner forecast that there will be 6.4 billion connected “things” in use this year, with Juniper Research predicting 38 billion by 2020.
Whatever the exact figure will be, it is clear that this market is quickly expanding and growing. But while the use of connected devices in the burgeoning IoT market is starting to make organisations more efficient, there is still a requirement for network operators to develop and standardise a new class of technologies to help manage cost and power consumption.
The existing IoT relies heavily on conventional cellular networks or local area networks such as Wi-Fi hotspots, but this is proving to be unsuitable. While existing cellular networks already offer very good area coverage in mature markets, many potential connected objects are located in vast remote areas, far from cellular base stations, resulting in weak signal. Also, cellular networks are not optimised for applications that occasionally transmit small amounts of data, resulting in inefficiencies and unsecured sharing of data.
LPWA networks welcomed by operators
The emergence of Low Power, Wide Area (LPWA) networks has been welcomed by mobile operators and vendors alike, as it addresses the need for efficiency with a simple and more cost-effective method of deploying IoT devices.
LPWA networks are designed to support devices that are located in remote or difficult to reach locations, have long battery lives, are capable of long-range connectivity, as well as being secure, and having a low price tag per unit. The batteries in particular are expected to last for years rather than a few days or months. These devices are required to send occasional status updates without the need for human intervention or even a regular electricity supply.
The use case for this technology is unbelievably vast and covers anything from smart metres, environmental sensors and logistics tracking to animal and crop monitoring and even wearables. It can also be used to remotely activate devices, such as sprinklers, lights and air conditioning.
Strategy Analytics forecasts that there will be well over one billion LPWA connections by the end of 2018 and more than five billion by the end of 2022. It is a huge market that will underpin IoT and although the average revenue per LPWA connection is likely to be relatively low, this new technology will enable the mobile industry to add substantial value to IoT.
To help accelerate the adoption of standards and the commercial availability of LPWA solutions, the GSMA instigated the ‘Mobile IoT Initiative’ with the support of the world’s leading mobile operators, device makers, OEMs and infrastructure companies.
This has succeeded in standardising three complementary LPWA technologies through 3GPP, the cellular standards body. These are Narrow Band IoT (NB-IoT), Extended Coverage GSM for IoT (EC-GSM-IoT) and Cat-M, which will support a diverse range of solutions in the burgeoning LPWA market. This standardisation will enable the industry to achieve economies of scale and interoperability.
Crucially, the initiative focuses on solutions in licensed spectrum. Licensed spectrum is simply a more reliable choice, offering a better quality of service than unlicensed. While this is freely available and therefore superficially appealing, it has a number of significant drawbacks.
Unlicensed is free and open to anybody to use but consequently subject to interference and congestion, and cannot be relied upon to deliver a pre-defined quality of service. In some markets, regulatory restrictions can also apply to the use of unlicensed spectrum making it difficult to generate global economies of scale.
Conversely, licensed spectrum offers customers a choice without locking them into a particular technology or supplier as their business changes. It is also scalable, secure and its infrastructure provides a Quality of Service (QoS) unlike unlicensed spectrum, which has restrictive data message lengths and availability.
Given the limitations of unlicensed spectrum, mobile operators have a clear long-term preference to employ licensed spectrum for LPWA, as this will enable them to build a sustainable long-term global IoT market presence.
Critical to all of this is the role of the operator, who is able to integrate LPWA connectivity into their existing IoT platforms and achieve further economies of scale, lower prices and enable new IoT applications. When it comes to selecting a LPWA network provider, businesses require reliability, continuity, and a provider they can trust.
With proven, secure and reliable end-to-end IoT platforms, as well as vast experience in handling millions of connections and securing data mobile networks operators are the obvious candidates. They already have extensive tower networks and backhaul capacity, and can offer IoT customers domestic as well as international network coverage. They can even reuse their existing infrastructure and licensed spectrum to support LPWA networks.
There are already numerous trials and pilots from our members underway that will speed up the development of services using this technology and get them out into the open market and we look forward to supporting the development of the IoT with secure LPWA networks in licensed spectrum. From monitoring grapes in a vineyard and cows in a field, through to smart bikes being able to monitor road terrain, it is clear that LPWA is going to change the lives of consumers and businesses alike.
Dr. Shane Rooney is executive director at GSMA