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LPWAN: Choice Overload and Confusion

Ryan Hickey
9/18/2015
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The Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) space is really heating up.

Just in the last few weeks we have seen some exciting announcements, such as the Mobile IoT Initiative from GSM Association (GSMA) , and a new LPWAN public network named the Machine Network from Ingenu (formerly On-Ramp).

As exciting as these announcements are, I do not believe they are positive developments for the LPWAN sector. There are too many competing technologies leading to choice overload and confusion.

There is clearly a gap in the industry today that needs to be filled by LPWAN technologies. The key characteristics defining LPWAN technology are as follows:

  • Low cost: for devices, infrastructure and connectivity
  • Low bandwidth and high latency: hundreds of bytes or less, every ten minutes or more
  • Long battery life: ten years on a single AA battery
  • Wide area coverage: reliable coverage with range measured in kilometers
  • Strong propagation characteristics: able to penetrate underground and deep into buildings

There are many technologies such as LoRa Alliance , Sigfox , Weightless-N and RPMA from Ingenu racing to establish themselves. Each of these network technologies share the characteristics stated above. We can argue which technology is superior, but boiled down, they all effectively solve the same problem. They are all well suited for connecting low-cost, remote wireless sensors to fuel the growth of IoT devices. Making the correct choice is difficult -- and a gamble at this stage.

The solutions mentioned above exist today, operate in unlicensed spectrum bands and are incompatible with each other. There is no clear winner when you look at the competing solutions. Just trying to figure out the differences between the solutions is complex and time consuming. Carriers are confused. OEMs are confused. Integrators are confused.

3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) has been working hard to standardize their own LPWAN solutions. Not surprisingly, there are several competing solutions being proposed by the usual suspects. What is surprising is that three separate solutions appear to be emerging in the standards, namely EC-GSM, NB-CIOT and LTE-M.

I believe 3GPP will fail itself and the community if it decides to offer multiple solutions. It really needs one strong solution that can handle the majority of IoT use cases for the next 30 years, similar to what GSM has done for voice. In order to take advantage of the economies of scale and meet the cost goals of LPWAN, carriers need just one IoT network, and OEMs need to be able to produce one product for the entire world.

The LPWAN sector is facing a serious problem with choice overload and confusion. I believe that this will cause many people to refrain from or at least delay making a choice. In the short term, the brave early adopters will place their bets, leading to a fragmented market. OEMs will be left scrambling to make products for the various network options, leading to higher product costs. In the long term, there needs to be consolidation to reduce the number of options. While it's not too late to develop an industry standard or at least a smaller set of standards, these present-day concerns are very real.

— Ryan Hickey, co-founder and CEO, eleven-x

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Salesand72176
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Salesand72176,
User Rank: Light Beer
4/21/2016 | 1:32:29 AM
Satellites for LPWAN
Thank you for the article. What about the role of satellites in LPWAN? Can an LPWAN satellite network compete with the existing LPWAN solutions?
DanJones
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DanJones,
User Rank: Blogger
9/21/2015 | 1:29:06 PM
Re: Ten years?
It's not the battery per see, its the radios on the devices sucking down the battey life. As I see it, there's 2 reasons this gaggle of LPWAN technologies has come about now.

1/ Old 2G networks are being shut down, so operators and providers have uncertainity that the M2M connnections they've used before will even be available for the lifespan.

2/ LTE would be the logical choice as the replacement. But LTE as it stands is not engineered to support ultra-low power radio connections, as you can probably tell from how long your smartphone retains its charge. 

Hence a flood of LPWANs, to which you can add NB-LTE to the mix.

It's basically a game of two sides though: Improve the radio power consumption and improve the batteries.
Mitch Wagner
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Mitch Wagner,
User Rank: Lightning
9/21/2015 | 10:24:57 AM
Re: Ten years?
This does suggest the question whether battery life is also going to be a problem for IoT. Do we need 10-year batteries? Do we have them?

Today I learned AA batteries were invented in 1907.
Ryan Hickey
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Ryan Hickey,
User Rank: Blogger
9/19/2015 | 11:17:13 AM
Re: Ten years?
Thanks for reading and commenting, Mitch. I absolutely agree that LPWAN is just another instance of the "basket of remotes" problem plaguing IoT. Your question about a standard AA battery lasting 10 years is also valid. I believe the AA battery language is chosen in order to provide context on battery capacity in a way most people can relate to as opposed to saying something like 10 year battery life on a 2000 mAh battery.
Mitch Wagner
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Mitch Wagner,
User Rank: Lightning
9/18/2015 | 4:27:54 PM
Ten years?
A standard, off-the-shelf AA battery will continue delivering power for 10 years? I did not know that. 

LPWAN is another instance of the "basket of remotes" problem pervading IoT. 
Mitch Wagner
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Mitch Wagner,
User Rank: Lightning
9/18/2015 | 4:27:54 PM
Ten years?
A standard, off-the-shelf AA battery will continue delivering power for 10 years? I did not know that. 

LPWAN is another instance of the "basket of remotes" problem pervading IoT. 
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