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Is Heterogeneous Coexistence a Requirement for Mobile IoT?

Steve Bell

According to the GSMA, 2017 has been dubbed "the year of Mobile IoT," as operators begin to launch one or more of the new 3GPP suite of licensed spectrum low-power wide-area (LPWA) technologies in their networks. These LPWA networks have been designed to connect devices that must be low cost and low power, and transmit low data rates infrequently from remote and hard to reach locations.

The standardization of these LPWA technologies took nine months to complete (in June 2016), and was included in 3GPP Release 13. This was a significant collaborative achievement since it covered three complementary but different standards that address a variety of IoT use cases, as well as different network capabilities. Extended Coverage GSM for the Internet of Things (EC-GSM-IoT), addresses the reality that GSM technology is -- and will remain -- a significant global network technology for many years to come. Long-Term Evolution for Machines (LTE-M) and Narrowband Internet of Things (NB-IoT) are designed to enhance recent 4G LTE networks. In all three cases, the technologies allow operators to leverage their existing secure platforms and services to help scale customers' IoT applications.

Reality check
Numerous articles about these licensed LPWA technologies have tended to look at them as discrete technologies, competing against themselves as well as other alternative technologies. Others have seen the delays in rollout, and issues with interoperability or lack of availability of chipsets as evidence that these licensed LPWA technologies will miss their window of opportunity, and will lose out to alternative LPWA technologies. I don't believe this to be true, although new market exploration and technology migration challenges do exist. By studying the development and deployment process, we can gain insight into those challenges that are an integral aspect of future LTE-Advanced Pro and 5G introductions.

Heterogeneous LPWA
The LPWA IoT market is not homogeneous and is composed of more than 20 major industry segments. In each industry, customers have their own unique use-case requirements, legacy systems, timing of implementation and specific longevity of deployments, based on total cost of ownership and ROI calculations. The complexity of these decisions increases daily with the realization that the networks are not a static investment. Enhanced network technologies, IoT platforms, devices, sensors and software applications are adding capability and intelligence on an ongoing basis. Companies could find themselves at a disadvantage if competitors can enhance their IoT capability faster and more flexibly. As a result, customers may be deploying and using specific networks at different times to fulfill differing use cases, or enhance capabilities in new facilities or locations, in which case there will be a need to manage heterogeneous networks.

Recognizing that individual use cases require different access technologies is fundamental to understanding how and why these three LPWA technologies will be deployed and when. With respect to the IoT market, operators can't initially afford to address all 20 or more segments; they must focus their services on specific use cases that they see as important in their market. Over time, as operators expand and grow their businesses, the probability is that use cases will require different access technologies. In other words, it is not an either/or deployment scenario in the long term, even if it appears that way initially. NB-IoT will coexist with LTE-M in most LTE operators, and could even coexist with GSM if use cases demand it. These licensed LPWA technologies will also coexist with non-licensed LPWA technologies because that's what many customers require.

Keep on learning
The fact that manufacturers and operators set up joint open labs to test LPWA underlines the fact that interoperability is key, but also difficult. It also emphasizes a necessary requirement: that the ecosystem of users, device vendors and applications developers must gain early access to the technology in order to achieve broad and rapid market introductions.

NB-IoT is a particularly interesting case study for these future technologies since new protocols are being used, and network slicing is now possible; all of which are precursors to 5G. This migration was supposed to be a simple software upgrade for network operators. If, as is rumored, there are interoperability issues, then the industry should take this learning and create a process to prevent it occurring in similar type future migrations, as envisioned in LTE-Advanced Pro and 5G.

Proving ground
This requirement for heterogeneous network management is a cornerstone of future 5G network architecture planning, and so learning from and building on the lessons of heterogeneous LPWA deployments makes a lot of sense. The fact that chipset and module vendors have combination chipsets available means that more complex LPWA networks will be built. Of course, there will be stumbles along the way but that is how the industry learns and adapts. The reality is that mobile operators and vendors have a perfect early-stage proving ground for learning the practical realities of delivering continuously enhanced services over managed mixed technology networks, in both the licensed and unlicensed spectrum.

This blog is sponsored by Huawei.

— Steve Bell, Senior Analyst, Heavy Reading

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