Cellular technologies designed to support IoT connections have received another boost with news that Dutch incumbent KPN is plotting a major rollout of LTE-M.
Like the recently publicized NB-IoT, the LTE-M standard can make use of existing LTE networks to provide low-power, wide-area (or LPWA) connectivity. That capability is needed for devices like smart meters and tracking gadgets, which can number in the billions but generate very low average revenue per user.
KPN Telecom NV (NYSE: KPN) has started trialing the technology in partnership with network equipment giant Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) and chipmaker Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM). Although it has not divulged any specific details about plans for a commercial rollout, it has promised that its network will support LTE-M by the end of 2017.
The update comes after rival Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD) said it would launch NB-IoT in several markets, including the Netherlands, between January and March next year. (See Vodafone Ireland to Launch NB-IoT in Jan 2017.)
It is also a further sign that several big cellular operators see roles for both 3GPP-backed standards and LPWA technologies that use unlicensed spectrum, such as LoRa and Sigfox .
KPN, notably, has already rolled out a LoRa network it sees as the perfect complement to LTE-M. While LoRa appears to be focused on "use cases" with a battery lifetime of up to 15 years, and a maximum data speed of 50 Kbit/s, LTE-M is aimed at supporting services requiring up to 1 Mbit/s, says the operator.
In other words, while LoRa is ideal for sensor-based communications with very low-bandwidth needs, LTE-M is the better option for payment terminals, electricity meters, fleet management and similar services.
Until now, the chief drawback of using LTE to support IoT services has been LTE module pricing, which is "significantly higher" than the cost of 2G and 3G equipment, according to KPN. "The introduction of LTE-M will change this," says the company in its statement.
KPN's strategy of using LoRa in conjunction with LTE-M mirrors that of South Korean telco SK Telecom (Nasdaq: SKM), which earlier this year told Light Reading that it saw those technologies as the "two main pillars" of its IoT strategy. (See SK Telecom Sees LTE-M, LoRa as Its 'Two Main IoT Pillars'.)
The approach casts some doubt over KPN's potential interest in NB-IoT, which is positioned as more of a rival to LoRa than a complement. Interestingly, operators making investments in or trialing NB-IoT, such as Telia Company and Vodafone, have shown little or no interest in LoRa. Vodafone has even been combative in its assessment of unlicensed-spectrum technologies, predicting that NB-IoT will "crush" both LoRa and Sigfox. (See Telia 'Betting' on NB-IoT Over LoRa, Sigfox and Vodafone to 'Crush' LoRa, Sigfox With NB-IoT.)
The operator reckons it can introduce NB-IoT speedily and cost-effectively because at least 80% of its basestations require nothing more than a software upgrade to support the technology. LoRa's backers, however, argue this software upgrade is just as costly as building a LoRa network from scratch.
Responding to questions on the capital expenditure needs of NB-IoT, a spokesperson for Vodafone said: "While we do not disclose the cost of specific technologies we deploy on our network, a software upgrade to our basestations to support NB-IoT is significantly cheaper than installing new hardware or building a new network and the cost is included in our existing plans.
"The software upgrade will be quick to complete, helps us avoid adding complexity to the network with an additional layer of hardware, and does not require additional site visits, site acquisition or hardware installation costs," he added. "It is too early to comment on the terms of our licensing."
Perhaps the biggest downside to LoRa and Sigfox is their reliance on unlicensed spectrum, which can be affected by congestion and interference. Technically, however, there is nothing to prevent operators from using LoRa with licensed spectrum, according to the LoRa Alliance association that backs LoRa technology. (See Is LoRa Going Licensed?)
KPN has not responded to queries about its interest in moving LoRa services into licensed spectrum bands.
— Iain Morris, , News Editor, Light Reading