Internet of Things network technologies: LPWAN wireless IoT guide

There are ample Internet of Things use cases, mainly in an Industrial Internet of Things context, where applications need cheap mobile low power and long range connectivity, whereby low bandwidth is more than enough.

That’s essentially what LPWA and LPWA networks (LPWAN) are about. The providers of LPWAN solutions are numerous and many of them are in a race to deploy their networks as fast as possible. We distinguish between cellular LPWAN (licensed spectrum) and non-cellular (unlicensed band).

There are several forms of LPWA networks and they all have a different market approach and technology stack. Let’s take a look.

LPWAN technologies use case and context priority

LPWAN outside of the licensed spectrum

As cellular technologies were too expensive for IoT applications, which typically need LPWA functionality (and there are really a lot of those), various providers started developing their own networks in the unlicensed mobile spectrum.

They all have their own ecosystem of partners and supporters, including major telecommunication firms and industrial giants. While, again, their approaches are very different, we mention four players below.

LoRA and LoRaWAN

The LoRa Alliance was founded by Semtech, a company which patented a CSS modulation technology that gave birth to LoRa wide area networks (LoRAWAN).

LoRaWAN is available in many countries across the globe, sometimes even nationwide. With the LoRa Alliance; Semtech and its partners went for a more open approach and the possibility for public and private LPWA networks.

LPWA use cases graphic by Lora Alliance member Actility at the occasion of its collaboration with Softbank in Japan
LPWA use cases graphic by Lora Alliance member Actility at the occasion of its collaboration with Softbank in Japan

Sigfox

Sigfox has a completely different model. It doesn’t just use another technology (ultra-narrowband) for its Sigfox networks (Sigfox is both the name of the company and the solution) but also has an entirely different business model.

Sigfox in principle works with one partner, a so-called Sigfox network operator, per country, and has a focus on deploying as much Sigfox LPWAN coverage as possible across the globe.

To achieve this, it works with (and is also funded by) several companies who dispose of towers and other high places where they can put there antennas. Sigfox has a big ecosystem but a different and more closed approach.

Sigfox network image via UK Sigfox partner Mesh-Net
Sigfox network image via UK Sigfox partner Mesh-Net

Weightless (SIG)

Another player in the non-cellular LPWAN market is Weightless. Weightless is the name of a group of companies, the Weightless Special Interest Group or SIG and the name of the technology which it developed for LPWAN IoT.

Weightless SIG, again, has another approach. It is a non-profit organization whose aim is to find ‘the best’ IoT connectivity technology.

In fact, Weightless SIG already developed a set of standards: Weightless-N (uni-directional, lowest cost), Weightless-P (communication in two directions for a somewhat shorter range and low cost) and Weightless-W (also bi-directional, for ranges over 5 kilometers and a bit more expensive but still cheaper than cellular). Weightless-P also supports licensed spectrum.

Ingenu

A last (but not least) player we’ll mention (there are more) and who typically belongs to those who are active in the unlicensed spectrum, is Ingenu (formerly known as On-Ramp Wireless).

Just like Sigfox, Ingenu has a proprietary model. Ingenu designed the so-called RPMA technology. RPMA, short for Random Phase Multiple Access, is an LPWA channel access method for M2M communication. Machine-to-machine is the DNA of Ingenu, which was initially mainly active in oil and gas but is now building one of biggest LPWA network in the US (‘the Machine Network’) and is also deploying across the globe (as all the others do of course).

Ingenu graphic on IoT evolution - source Ingenu article on LPWA
Ingenu graphic on IoT evolution – source Ingenu article on LPWA

Which LPWAN approach? A matter of use case, context and business as (un)usual

Sigfox, LoRaWAN and Ingenu are the main players of the four, again, all with their specific focus and different technologies and partnership ecosystems (proprietary doesn’t mean there are no partners of course and it doesn’t mean the same thing for Sigfox and Ingenu either).

For companies who want to launch Internet of Things applications it can all be a bit confusing, especially as some of the mentioned players of course are in a race to become the norm and defend their solutions.

What the best connectivity solution is for your projects depends on numerous factors:

  • What is the scope of the project, what’s the use case?
  • How much data is being sent, at which range and at which speed and intervals?
  • What is the local context? Is there coverage for any of the mentioned players? Is there other coverage that suits your needs better? Do you build something from scratch as your application will need to work in remote areas?
  • Do you need a hybrid approach with several connectivity solutions, including cellular, WiFi and more (vendors such as Cisco have hybrid offerings)?
  • What about costs? Data range? Outdoor? Indoor? Both?
  • Is there a partnership ecosystem in your area upon which you can rely?
  • How important is the autonomy (and battery life) of your devices?
  • Etc…

In the end it’s the application and its desired outcome within a broader context which matters more.

Mapping of use cases and network technologies Source Analysys Mason 2015
Mapping of use cases and network technologies Source Analysys Mason 2015

In some regions you will also have the luxury of several LPWAN technologies, in others there will be none as the providers race to build out their networks.

Below is a SlideShare that gives an overview of all of them (and more).

Cellular LPWAN: NB-IoT and LTE-M

This brings us to another factor that adds to the LPWAN evolutions. If you visit the sites of the various players and/or their partners mentioned before you’ll notice they often will say why cellular IoT is not a good fit for you but also why the latest cellular LPWAN solutions can’t be compared. Telcos who offer cellular LPWAN will of course disagree as will their partners.

Although various telecommunication firms, who operate mobile cellular networks, offer LoRa or Sigfox as a complement to, for instance their 2G, 3G and 4G cellular offering and other types of networks, several mobile operators are at the same time pushing cellular LPWAN offerings and this will increase in the years to come.

While some operators argue that these cellular offerings, such as NB-IoT (NarrowBand IoT, also known as CAT-NB1) are about to destroy the earlier mentioned non-cellular providers, that is as exaggerated as saying that cellular LPWA technologies (see 3GPP) such as NB-IoT or LTE-M (CAT-M1), which has a higher bandwidth than NB-IoT, are worse than non-cellular LPWA networks.

Qualcomm graphic on 3GPP Cellular IoT use cases per type
Qualcomm graphic on 3GPP Cellular IoT use cases per type

It all depends and there are differences but in the end, even if there might be a change in the landscape with maybe someone dropping out, the various LPWAN approaches will still live along each other for quite some time.

The debates are for the various stakeholders in each category but the reality is that the use case and application makes all the difference.

Sierra Wireless covers two leading cellular LPWA technologies in infographic at occasion of announcement modules for cellular LPWA
Sierra Wireless covers two leading cellular LPWA technologies in an infographic at the occasion of an announcement of new modules for cellular LPWA

The rest is speculation and, for certain, the market will change, with a big impact of cellular LPWAN too. The future will tell.

Maybe it’s simply as Professor Maarten Weyn said at the occasion of an interview for the LPWAN World Forum 2016: multimodality is key if LPWAN wants to be a success, there is not one technology which is able to cover all use cases.

PS: don’t ask about 5G. More below.

 

Top image: Shutterstock – Copyright: chombosan – All other images are the property of their respective mentioned owners.