The UK has historically been a leader in telecoms, but it has lagged behind in low-power wide-area network (LPWAN) development. This is unfortunate, given the importance of LPWAN technologies to the growth and success of the Internet of Things (IoT).
Indeed, according to Alex Gluhak, head of technology and IoT lead at Digital Catapult, the UK agency for advanced digital deployment, it has left the UK stuck in a “chicken and egg” situation. And without a significant LPWAN network, businesses are in a poor position to develop IoT technologies, he says.
Internet of Business sat down with Gluhak for an exclusive Q&A.
Internet of Business says: Can you explain why LPWAN is so important to the development of the IoT sector? What does it contribute?
Alex Gluhak: “As we all know, the Internet of Things is about connecting physical objects – such as vehicles, home appliances, and manufacturing systems – to the digital world so that they can be tracked, monitored, and managed remotely and more efficiently.
“But in order to do this, many IoT solutions will need to connect over large distances, while at the same time using very little power. This is where LPWAN presents its worth. It contributes the infrastructure required to make IoT solutions commercially viable in those situations.”
In global terms, where does the UK stand in the development of LPWAN capabilities?
“While the UK has historically been a leader in telecoms, it has lagged behind its global counterparts in LPWAN development. There are many reasons for this, with one being that other countries have capitalised on first-mover advantage, having established themselves as leaders in LPWAN development from an early stage.
“IoT services provider, Sigfox, for example, emerged from France in 2009 and has led the way in commercialising the deployment of the technology. The company provides LPWAN technologies, enabling users to harness the power of IoT solutions in industries ranging from manufacturing and utilities to energy and supply chain logistics.
“In other countries, such as China, the government has been quick to prioritise the technology, accelerating developments such as NB-IoT, in particular.
“Meanwhile, the UK has experienced false starts, with a promising agreement to roll out Sigfox being scrapped. Furthermore, the high competition among operators in the UK – resulting in radio site sharing agreements and fears of cannibalising their own M2M businesses – has slowed down the rollout of cellular LPWAN solutions on the UK market.”
Why does the UK need a strong LPWAN network to foster the development of IoT technologies? Do we need our own solution?
“IoT products and services rely on the connectivity of IoT devices to cloud-based service platforms, either on the internet or on enterprise systems, to deliver their value. LPWAN provides a significant shift in terms of hardware, deployment, and connectivity costs. This enables much cheaper IoT devices to be built and connected over longer periods of time without maintenance.
This also allows the realisation of new businesses cases which are currently cost-prohibitive with existing connectivity technologies.
“The lack of LPWAN networks in the UK hampers IoT innovation, because UK businesses are starved of the opportunity to experiment with new product and service ideas developed on top of these networks.
“A look at the product catalogues of Sigfox, or at LoRaWAN technologies, for example, shows a clear dominance of French players offering solutions, followed by other countries where their commercial networks are available.
“The lack of national LPWAN networks also makes scaling successful technology pilots to other customers across the country difficult, if not impossible. This significantly limits the size of the total addressable market in the UK.”
Where do the UK’s network operators stand in all of this? Can’t they create the network that’s needed?
“Getting LPWAN off the ground in the UK has become a chicken and egg situation. The technology is advanced enough and mobile operators have the capability roll out the infrastructure. However, doing so requires a sizeable investment, so they want to make sure that there is a ready market.
“Without the infrastructure, IoT businesses are unable to develop prototypes to demonstrate the market’s potential. This stalemate is a significant barrier to progress, which the UK must overcome if it’s to catch up with more mature markets in the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, and Ireland.
“Digital Catapult is accelerating this process through its Things Connected programme, providing IoT businesses with the LPWAN infrastructure to develop their products or services, and to pilot for potential customers, driving the demand side of the LPWAN market. As part of Things Connected, Digital Catapult is also working with operators to ensure early access for innovators to their emerging LPWAN networks, wherever they become available.”
So what needs to happen to move the UK forward, and what’s the timeframe?
“After nearly two years of LPWAN market support, we finally see the efforts of our Things Connected programme beginning to pay off as successful UK-based products are starting to emerge on the market. Early adopters in different industries, ranging from city councils to emergency services, from utility companies to the aerospace industry, are now ready to engage in LPWAN technology pilots.
“Also, larger commercial networks are starting to emerge. WND, which is the new Sigfox operator for the UK, is currently building out national coverage with an aggressive target to have completed the rollout to most of the UK landmass by the end 2018. However, their current progress is not as fast as anticipated and coverage targets could well shift into the next year.
“Further movement on commercial network rollouts is finally expected by mobile operators, with Vodafone in prime position to launch NB-IoT at some point this year.
‘Rumours of initial trials in some UK regions are surfacing, but so far rollout and launch plans have been continuously shifted. With a bit of luck, we can see the beginnings of a UK NB-IoT network this summer.
But the main driver for a faster network rollout will be the emergence of sufficient market demand.
“On the one hand, this includes more intensive engagement with potential adopters to work out business cases and establish technology pilots, both in technical and business terms. On the other, it also requires operators and solution providers to fully commit to an LPWAN technology choice, so as to increase the confidence of the market to move from pilots to large-scale rollouts.”
What are the consequences if there is no progress on LPWAN, for IoT development in the UK and for the UK’s standing in the global IoT league?
“In many countries where commercial LPWAN networks are available, larger scale rollouts are about to begin. Solution providers in those countries had an opportunity to experiment for several years with different LPWAN technologies, and optimise their product designs through pilots with potential customers. So they will have a head start when it comes to serving the first wave of larger-scale rollouts.
“Likewise, early adopters will have the opportunity to experiment with new business models and significantly cut down operational costs in delivering services, and through it become more competitive.
“Thus, the impact of a lack of IoT development is not only limited to businesses that are part of the immediate IoT supply chain, but also to the competitiveness of various adopters at large.”
Internet of Business says
Gluhak’s call for a more coherent and comprehensive UK strategy for LPWAN is both inspiring and instructive. It’s good news that early signs of LPWAN rollouts are there, but frustrating that false starts – combined with the Catch-22 that innovators find themselves in (no network without demand, no demand without network) – have set the UK behind its peers in Europe and elsewhere.