Two-thirds of IoT networks running Lora, Sigfox; one third running smart-city apps
Unlicensed networks, mostly based on LoRa and Sigfox, make up two-thirds of low-power wide-area (LPWA) networks today, according to a study of 100 LPWA networks by IoT research firm ON World. A third of the total network deployments are geared towards smart city applications, the report found.
However, despite the dominance of unlicensed IoT technologies, their licensed equivalents, including NB-IoT and LTE-M, are gaining ground. On World said NB-IoT “network operator activity” will grow by 1,800% in 2018. Operators have launched ultra low-price IoT plans in recent months, notably Deutsche Telekom’s offer of €10 per SIM, covering 500MB of data for the life of each device, pegged at 10 years.
Mareca Hatler, research director at ON World, noted the disruption in the LPWA market. “There are dozens of LPWA network operators in various stages of development today, up from a handful just a few years ago. This has resulted in disruptive pricing for network connectivity and lower component costs for IoT developers,” she said.
Mainstream carriers such as Arqiva, Bouygues, Orange, KPN, Proximus and Swisscom have covered much of Europe and Asia Pacific already with Sigfox and LoRa networks. A growing number of independent operators, including Senet, Thinxtra and UnaBiz, are adding to their footprints. The growth of unlicensed LPWA networks has been spurred by their simple architecture, easy installation and free spectrum.
The LoRA Alliance claims there has been more than 100 percent growth in the number of public LoRa networks in the past 12 months, from 31 live networks to 67. By contrast, the GSMA said ahead of MWC in February that 23 carriers had so far launched 41 licensed cellular IoT networks.
Sigfox and LoRa have similar profiles. The main differences are in their business models. LoRa is not a company, but a standard, developed by chip manufacturer Semtech and maintained by around 500 firms under the non-profit LoRa Alliance. LoRa networks are acquired, constructed and maintained by private companies. LoRa-based devices run chips exclusively from Semtech.
Meanwhile, tier-one carriers are rolling out licensed LPWA networks at pace, across the globe. By the end of 2018, most of the US, Europe and Asia Pacific will be covered with licensed IoT networks. Operators are split on the relative merits of NB-IoT and LTE-M. Deutsche Telekom is rolling out NB-IoT in eight European markets, as well as the US, and offering bundles of connectivity, hardware, platform and analytical services . It reckons NB-IoT allows for “much more detailed information”, compared with LTE-M, and cited its work on smart city parking in Germany.
“You can go two ground levels down, and still have right frequency of data,” Anette Bronder, director of digital at the company’s IT division T-Systems, told Enterprise IoT Insights at Mobile World Congress in late February. “It’s cheap, as well,” she added.
AT&T said LTE-M offers “in-building penetration through 12 inches of concrete”, as well as longer battery life and reduced module size. “There are technical advantages. LTE-M provides the best value in terms of cost, battery life, in-building penetration, for a balanced two-way network,” said Mobeen Khan, vice president of IoT solutions at AT&T.
Has AT&T ruled out NB-IoT? “No, we haven’t closed the door on it. It may be we back both, or may just stick with LTE-M. But we have backed and deployed LTE-M at scale, now.” What about Deutsche Telekom? Is it committed exclusively to NB-IoT? “Yes; NB-IoT gives us the opportunity to step into real use cases. For the last 18 months, we have been involved in lots of projects and examples, and we are now scaling up. NB-IoT allows that,” said Bronder.
France-based Orange puts it down to resources and requirements. “We can’t deploy everything,” said Emmanuel Routier, vice president of Orange’s global M2M business. In general, Orange is more even-handed, with a continuing interest in LoRa, alongside a developing LTE-M roadmap at group level. Orange and KPN, in France and the Netherlands respectively, completed the first field tests of roaming between national LoRaWAN networks earlier this week, utilizing the latest LoRaWAN specification, released in October.
A major advantage for LoRa-based systems, for now, is the cost of modules, typically around $2, compared with closer $4 for NB-IoT and LTE-M modules. “Even in 2020, the cost of [LTE-M and NB-IoT] modules and sensors and gateways will still be three times more expensive than LoRa.” LoRa offers a good medium-term solution, which can be revised and possibly swapped out as licensed technologies gain scale, according to Routier, repeating that technologies must be applied according to the use cases.
ON World said the fastest-growing LPWA sectors are smart cities, smart energy and smart water. A third of LPWA applications focus on smart city applications such as streetlight monitoring, parking solutions, waste management, and air quality and noise pollution monitoring. They have been deployed in over five million gas and electric meters. Sigfox and LoRa are the most active in smart grids, but LTE-M and NB-IoT are catching up, it said.
Low-cost, long-range asset trackers, or ‘smart tags’, will be the largest and fastest growing LPWA market in the next 10 years, it said.