Potential: LPWA networks, the key to the IoT


By Dr. Shane Rooney, executive director, GSMA

There have been a huge number of predictions about the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT). Analyst house, Juniper Research, estimates that there will be as many as 38 billion connected devices by 2020, but while the exact figure remains to be seen, it is clear that the market is quickly expanding and covering numerous verticals industries. The always on connectivity is already making organisations more efficient but there was a requirement for network operators to develop and standardise a new class of technologies to help manage the cost and power consumption associated with running these technologies.

Finding a suitable network

Emerging IoT solutions relied heavily on conventional cellular networks or local area networks such as WiFi, but this is proving to be unsuitable for a number of reasons. While existing cellular networks already offer very good area coverage in many applications, but may not be suitable for devices that are in basements or underground like water meters. As well as this, cellular networks were not optimised for applications that occasionally transmit small amounts of data, resulting in inefficiencies and unsecured sharing of data.

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, need long battery lives and are capable of deeper connectivity, as well as being secure, and having a low price tag per unit than traditional machine to machine (M2M) devices. The battery life in particular will be longer lasting; and 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, repair, upgrade or even a regular electricity supply.

The advantages of this technology is unbelievably vast, given that it covers anything from smart meters, 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.

Mobile IoT Initiative

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) 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 a reliable choice, offering a better quality of service than unlicensed – which, while freely available and therefore superficially appealing, 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. On the other hand, licensed spectrum offers customers a choice without locking them into a particular technology or supplier as their business changes.

With these facts in mind, 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. Mobile network operators are the obvious choice, as they have proven, secure and reliable end to end IoT platforms, as well as vast experience in handling millions of connections. They already have global networks and backhaul capacity, and can offer IoT customers domestic as well as international network coverage.

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 has the potential to grow exponentially in the coming years, providing smarter, more efficient solutions to help businesses and consumers manage everyday tasks.

The GSMA represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide, uniting nearly 800 operators with more than 250 companies in the broader mobile ecosystem, including handset and device makers, software companies, equipment providers and Internet companies, as well as organisations in adjacent industry sectors.


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