LPWA matchup | LoRaWAN vs Sigfox vs NB-IoT vs LTE-M: down for the count (round 1)
Note this is a serialised version of an editorial report, called ‘LPWA connectivity in IoT – who is winning what?’. The full report, including additional content, is available for download here.
Is there a more tribal field in the internet-of-things (IoT) space than low-power wide-area (LPWA) networking? I don’t think so. Whatever this narrative says, in the end, will likely be jumped on by one side of the other. But its aim, as it navigates between forecast and opinion, is true: only to do better than the drunk man and the lamp post, and use its inputs for broad illumination rather than singular support.
At the same time, this discussion is constrained insofar as it plots between four would-be heavyweights in the LPWA ring. These are: LoRaWAN and Sigfox, the odd couple, apparently fighting among themselves in the blue corner; and LTE-M and NB-IoT, the carrier pairing in the red, invented by the operator set to halt these upstarts, which have made a sport of sensor harvesting and a game of IoT.
There are others, besides: a host of proprietary LPWA technologies, using custom silicon, have underpinned low-rate networking for disciplines like metering, lighting, and tracking for a decade, at least – since before IoT exploded as a workable concept. Alternatives have emerged, too; Wi-SUN, for one, should be considered a real contender.
But in general, and for narrative simplicity, most other LPWA technologies have started to consolidate behind these four, building ecosystems and scale, as the IoT market has gathered momentum. This is the contest, then; this is the match-up: LoRaWAN versus Sigfox versus NB-IoT – with LTE-M bundled in as well from a different weight division.
The question, as our headline demands, is: who is winning what? We should start our quest for illumination with statistics – and one recent set of numbers in particular, from ABI Research, which provides clues for our trail and a thread for our tale.
But it’s something of a false start.
ABI presents a scene where, actually, these four are merely contenders, rather than knock-out champs. As of late 2018, LTE-M and NB-IoT, the twin cellular technologies running in licensed spectrum, had just 6.3 per cent of the LPWA market. Non-cellular technologies, in unlicensed spectrum, make up the rest.
But of these, LoRaWAN and Sigfox hold 19 per cent and three per cent of the total share, respectively. Except for LoRaWAN’s showing, these are hardly heavyweight numbers.
Over 71 per cent of the market is still taken with proprietary non-cellular LPWA technologies, which do not commonly feature in discussion of digital transformation. Nevertheless these others will be swamped in the next years, reckon analysts, as their share tumbles to just 7.7 per cent of the total by 2026 – even as their connection volumes treble from 88 million to 275 million. Which puts them out for the count, in this article, at least.
ABI says LoRaWAN, Sigfox, NB-IoT, and LTE-M will add 3.26 billion connections in the period, at a compound growth rate of about 77 per cent per year. They will account for 91 per cent of the market by then – and LTE-M and NB-IoT will emerge triumphant in the end, with 62 per cent of everything.
But it won’t start like that for the red team. Non-cellular LPWA, spearheaded by LoRaWAN and Sigfox, has maintained and even extended its market-share lead over its cellular equivalents, as LTE-M and NB-IoT have been “plagued” by network and device issues.
In mid-2019, even as operators and vendors sort out these issues, LTE-M and NB-IoT are further delayed by complications around embedded and integrated SIM (eSIM and iSIM) technology and merging with 5G cellular standards. The operator community has let its guard down, it seems.
Anecdotally, Belgian operator Proximus, running both LoRaWAN and NB-IoT networks, says the headache with NB-IoT is around availability of devices. “LoRaWAN has really advanced in terms of the maturity of the devices. NB-IoT is still lacking – the broad portfolio of devices is not there,” says Vincent Hebbelynck, the company’s head of incubation and innovation.
The IoT market is young, he explains, and selling is about collaboration and consultancy. The tech soution has to fit the business problem. That is the theory, anyway; sometimes it just comes down to whether you have the devices. “You have to link the conversation back to devices at some point. So yes, we will in some cases go to LoRaWAN because that’s where devices exist.”
Adarsh Krishnan, principal analyst at ABI Research, comments: “This short-term uncertainty has delayed the commercial rollout of cellular LPWA IoT solutions by 12 to 18 months. But, it has also benefited Sigfox and LoRa, as both have witnessed a substantial increase in adoption from device makers and IoT solution vendors.”
Most LPWA network connections (53 per cent) will run in unlicensed bands through the start of 2023, the mid-way point in the ABI forecast, at least – with Sigfox and LoRaWAN supporting 60 per cent of these, and about 32 per cent of the total. But the numbers start to align, as cellular IoT claims a 47 per-cent share at the break.
By the summer of 2023, ABI says cellular will have scored a palpable hit, after which the balance of the fight shifts decisively. The market for LPWA connections will reach 3.6 billion in 2026, says ABI, by which time LTE-M and NB-IoT will capture the majority share – more than 60 per cent of connections. LoRa and Sigfox will account for over 80 per cent of the rest, comprising the non-cellular LPWA market.
That is the scene, in round 15, in ABI’s forecast period to 2026. But is this right?
IHS Markit, another analyst firm, makes predictions for unit shipments (distinct from connections), for the period through to 2021, when it expects the LPWA market to be worth $24.46 billion, up about 89 per cent over five years. It has LoRa shipments at 98.16 million in 2019 and 249.72 million in 2021, compared with Sigfox at 27.95 million and 85.04 million, respectively, and NB-IoT at 84.6 million and 222.9 million.
ABI and IHS are about in line, whether they are counting connections or shipments: there is a 12 million delta between their 2021/2023 LoRa/LoRaWAN forecasts, which stretches to about 27 million for Sigfox and 66 million for NB-IoT. This looks surmountable over two-to-three years (2021-2023), given the overall run rates they imagine (51 and 95 per cent growth per annum, respectively).
Meanwhile, the industry has its own numbers, variously combining forecasts, shipments and targets. Ericsson, backing cellular-based NB-IoT and LTE-M in the red corner, predicts cellular IoT connections will reach 4.1 billion by 2024.
This categorisation includes legacy M2M connections, on 2G and 3G networks, plus incoming LTE and 5G IoT broadband applications. Of this, it suggests about 45 per cent will be on new-model LTE-M and NB-IoT networks, which works out as about 1.85 billion connections – close enough, at least, to ABI’s 2026 forecast of 2.2 billion cellular LPWA lines.
Vodafone, one of the operator community’s very biggest champions of NB-IoT, with 15 live networks, reckons it will be sooner. “It’s earlier, I think – when NB-IoT and LTE-M will become firmly established,” says Phil Skipper, head of IoT business development at Vodafone, responding to the question of a 2023 crossover.
His logic is NB-IoT devices are launching, and the real delay until now has been wrought by the sizes of the deals in play. High volume contracts just take longer to sort, he reasons, in terms of both decision making and development cycles. “A meter manufacturer, putting NB-IoT into every single coffee machine – that’s a big move.”
Skipper also cites Vodafone’s boot-strapping deal with Arm. Emerging iSIM technology provides enterprises with a programmable, connected system-on-chip design that eliminates the need for traditional SIM cards. The new tie-up means all IoT chips based on Arm designs will default to the Vodafone network when they are switched on, and fall back to the Vodafone network in case of connectivity outages.
“NB-IoT gets designed into the chip, which is fabricated and put into the coffee machine, for instance. It’s a completely different way of going to market. That availability of NB-IoT as a connection medium will drive change,” says Skipper.
Krishnan at ABI says the shift towards cellular is already starting. “The issues in the last few years are just growing pains. Network coverage is ramping up. Most of the issues have been with devices and solutions. But once these come to market, a lot of end customers that have wanted to deploy a global solution – so what they produced in Norway can shift to India, say – will adopt cellular,” he says.