LoRa Enters SoftBank's IoT Harem

SoftBank has become the latest telco to announce a big commitment to LoRa technology, revealing that it will begin providing Internet of Things (IoT) services -- ranging from device and application support to consulting -- on a LoRa network by March next year.

The Japanese operator has also named some heavy-hitting technology partners for its LoRa deployment, including Taiwanese hardware giant Foxconn Electronics Inc. , IoT software specialist Actility , and Californian chipmaker Semtech Corp. (Nasdaq: SMTC) -- the company behind LoRa technology. (See IoT Startup Actility to Add 3GPP Support in 2016.)

While banking on LoRa's allure, SoftBank Corp. is not planning any kind of monogamous relationship: It is likely that SoftBank's harem of IoT technologies will eventually include NB-IoT and Cat-M1 -- licensed-spectrum standards that have been developed by the 3GPP.

LoRa, by contrast, is one of several low-power, wide-area (LPWA) network technologies that use unlicensed airwaves.

Others include technologies developed by France's Sigfox and US-based Ingenu , but LoRa appears to have won greater acceptance within the telco community. (See Ingenu Revs Up IoT Rhetoric and Is Sigfox on the Run?)

"We thought LoRa was the optimal choice since it has been adopted by a large number of operators around the world, has an expanding ecosystem and is an open standard," a spokesperson for SoftBank told Light Reading. South Korea's SK Telecom (Nasdaq: SKM), France's Orange (NYSE: FTE) and KPN Telecom NV (NYSE: KPN) of the Netherlands are among other Tier 1 service providers also investing in LoRa technology.

LoRa has undoubtedly received a boost from the short-term unavailability of 3GPP technologies -- NB-IoT, for instance, was not included in the 3GPP's Release 13 until June this year -- but its status could be threatened by their emergence as commercial options in the next few months. (See The NB-IoT Train Is Coming.)

Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD), a major backer of NB-IoT, has rejected LoRa entirely, preferring to wait for the 3GPP alternative. The UK-based operator is now planning to introduce commercial NB-IoT services next year. (See Vodafone Ups IoT Stakes With 2017 Plan for NB-IoT and Vodafone to 'Crush' LoRa, Sigfox With NB-IoT.)

Orange has also suggested that it could eventually switch to a licensed-spectrum technology for all of its IoT services. (See LoRa May Not Be for Long Haul at Orange.)

SoftBank's strategy looks more akin to that of SK Telecom, which plans to use LoRa alongside Cat-M1 to support IoT services. (See SK Telecom Sees LTE-M, LoRa as Its 'Two Main IoT Pillars'.)

The South Korean telco recently told Light Reading that it would use LoRa for "low-mobility" services transmitting small amounts of data over long distances. That might include providing connectivity for smart meters and certain types of asset-tracking device.

Cat-M1, meanwhile, is to cater to higher-bandwidth requirements and use cases entailing some degree of mobility.

Want to know more about the Internet of Things? Check out our dedicated IoT content channel here on Light Reading.

Other than saying it wants to be able to comply with "differing environments," SoftBank has yet to indicate exactly how it believes LoRa would complement Cat-M1 and NB-IoT. "The aim is to provide the full set of LPWA networks, but plans for NB-IoT and Cat-M1 are under consideration at this stage," said SoftBank's spokesperson. "We will provide more detail in due course."

However, the operator did note some of LoRa's specific characteristics in its press release.

The LoRa network will use spectrum in the 920MHz spectrum band and typically support devices that have a battery life of around ten years, said the operator. The communication range of the technology will be "multiple kilometers," it added, while noting the cost of a LoRa module is around "100s of yen."

While Semtech Corp. (Nasdaq: SMTC) controls the intellectual property behind LoRa, the LoRa ecosystem has been flourishing, making the technology appear more "open" than Sigfox and the RPMA (for random phase multiple access) system developed by Ingenu.

Sigfox also claims a substantial share of service revenues generated by its network partners, which may have discouraged some telcos from striking deals with the company. (See Sigfox Plans Global IoT Network.)

Nevertheless, the French company has been able to secure cable group Altice -- whose Numericable-SFR subsidiary is a major French rival to Orange -- as a network partner. It has also raised funding from Spain's Telefónica and SK Telecom, although the latter company's recent prioritization of LoRa raises questions about its continuing interest in Sigfox. (See Altice, Sigfox Join Forces in French IoT Battle.)

— Iain Morris, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, News Editor, Light Reading

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