Throughout parts one and two I discussed the concepts of IoT and (I)IoT, (big) data analytics, data placement, the triggering of workflows and I had a more detailed look at the LPWAN and LTE (cellular) type networks. I also included a cheat sheet where I highlighted 6 of the most common (and upcoming) (I)IoT networks including their main characteristics and features. Today I’d like to focus on the various individual networks mentioned like: Sigfox, LoRa, NB-IOT etc. and talk a bit more about their background and future potential.
Other related (I)IoT posts:
- All ‘things’ connected, the ‘I’ in the IoT – a closer look. Part one!
- All ‘things’ connected, the ‘I’ in the IoT – a closer look. Part two!
- Defining your IoT strategy – first things first!
- IoT use-case: The Connected Cow! Yes, really
- Citrix Octoblu: an architectural breakdown
Since all the network types covered below are part of the earlier published IoT networking technology cheat sheet, I’ve included it in this post as well.
In 2009 Sigfox started to build the first modern LPWAN network (France), which quickly took off, especially within Europe, and it continues to grow by the day. I recently spoke to some of the Dutch Sigfox representatives and their story was quite impressive, as were their numbers.
And while today’s LPWAN networks have a lot in common with their pressers, one of the biggest differences is today’s online integration making it possible to apply (near) real-time monitoring, and all the benefits that come with it – also the main reason why these types of networks have become so popular in such a short time frame, which goes for some of the other networks as well.
Sigfox is best used for (extreme) low bandwidth applications, especially where energy consumption, or the lack of it, plays a critical role. As mentioned in the cheat sheet as well, it is an open (proprietary) standard, which has its pros and cons. Like LoRa, it is a completely separate network exclusively designed just for IoT purposes. It operates at 868 GHz in Europe and at 900 MHz throughout the USA.
Europe (including the UK) has by far the broadest coverage to date, and as mentioned is still expanding on a daily basis. In the USA Sigfox is still heavily under construction as you can clearly see on their website as well. Parts of Chicago, Miami, San Diego and San Francisco do already have solid coverage – more to come, I’m sure. As far as some of the more technical details go, have a look at the earlier mentioned cheat sheet below or here.
Stands for Long Range and is one of the better known LPWAN’s, or Low Power Wide Area Networks. Data throughput rates range from 0.3 tot 50 Kbit/s as described in the LoRa(Wan) R1.0 Open Standard for the IoT, which broadens its range for several other use-cases besides low power, low battery consumption as compared to Sigfox, for example. When it comes to low power consumption, LoRa uses something called an Adaptive Data Rate algorithm, or ADR to optimize and control battery life and network capacity. In short: the LoRaWAN network server manages the data rate for each connected sensor via an algorithm. A unique approach.
When there’s is talk of LoRa, LoRaWAN is almost always mentioned in the same sentence and does tend to cause some confusion from time to time. LoRa is a technology developed by the chip manufacturer, Semtech, which is also why it’s not considered an open standard, but proprietary like Sigfox. LoRa refers to wireless modulation allowing low power communication – think of it as the physical layer. LoRaWAN, on the other hand, refers to the networking protocol making use of the above-mentioned LoRa (Semtech) physical components enabling medium to long-range, low power communication – I hope that makes sense.
Back in June 2016 The Netherlands became the first country to have a nationwide LoRa network for IoT purposes, rolled out by KPN, by the way. Nationwide coverage (or close to) of LoRa can also be found in Belgium, France and big parts of Italy, with Germany soon to follow as well. Other parts of the world where LoRa is being deployed include but are not limited to: the USA, New Zeeland, Australia, Japan, India (Tata steel communications) and more. One advantage that LoRa (Again, the physical part) has over other LPWAN offerings, is the option to also deploy private networks, which is also one of the main reasons it is so widely spread.
NB-IOT is another 3GPP Rel. 13 proposal, like LTE Cat 0 and 1, though it doesn’t operate in the LTE band/spectrum. The technology used is DSSS modulation, as highlighted in the cheat sheet as well. It’s still fairly new, in fact the requirements of the 3GPP Rel. 13 standard for NB-IOT have just been finalized as of early 2016. Note that there is also a cellular LTE based LPWAN option named LTE-M, based on the 3GPP standard, which will be discussed later.
While NB-IOT can’t operate in the LTE spectrum directly, it can make use of existing LTE base stations/networks. Resource blocks can be allocated for NB-IOT purposes, either ‘in-band’ or in the so-called LTE ‘guard-bands’. The question is: will current LTE carriers do/allow this since reducing the number of current LTE ‘blocks’ automatically means less capacity, and thus income on the LTE side. It will come down to, which one will be most profitable and future-proof, though this can be a tough question to answer.
For all this to work (the reuse of LTE resource blocks) different software and a couple of additional modifications will be needed, and in the case of Alcatel based infrastructures new hardware will need to be installed as well, meaning an upfront investment, which could turn out to be costly for the carriers involved. As a second option, unused 200 kHz bands that have been previously used for GSM networks could also be leveraged/reused for NB-IOT purposes. So, depending on which type of network (GSM or LTE) has a bigger presence in a certain area, country or continent even, one will probably have a preference over the other.
Within an NB-IOT network all data is directly sent to the main server (s), so no gateways are needed, unlike most of the other (narrowband) IoT networks out there. No gateways, means less infrastructural components, equals less (er) upfront investments. Next to that, ‘NB-IOT only’ chips, when compared to LTE will be simpler and cheaper to manufacture – the all-over component costs are lower.
Even though there are still a lot of uncertainties, pros and cons to the various network types available today – and still in development, quite a few (big) companies are interested and investing in NB-IOT type networks, like: Huawei, Ericsson, Qualcomm, and Vodafone.
Next to NB-IOT (as previously discussed) the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) also introduced LTE-M, which is short for LTE-MTC (Machine-Type Communication), also known and referred to as Cat-M. Another narrowband, low (er) power network option that can co-exist with other LTE services. Together with NB-IOT they expand the LTE technology portfolio to support an even wider range of low-power IoT use cases. An LTE-M network should also be able to offer up to 10 years of battery life on a 5WH battery.
One of the main advantages of LTE-M over NB-IOT is that it is compatible with existing LTE networks. The only thing LTE carriers will have to take care of is a relatively simple software upgrade, at least on paper. Besides that, LTE-M is also seen as more secure and can handle higher data rates as well. Because existing LTE/4G networks are used and the maximum data rate of an average LTE device is ‘only’ around 100 Kbits/s the network won’t be heavily utilized. Also, carriers can offer pricing closer to 2G service plans instead of 4G. As a result, LTE-M is often seen as being superior to NB-IOT.
Both LTE-M and NB-IOT are part of the 3GPP Release 13. Release 14 is supposed to bring new capabilities such as single-cell multicast to both eMTC and NB-IoT, enabling easy over-the-air firmware upgrades as well as enhanced device positioning for asset location tracking.
LTE-M and NB-IOT are both being rolled out as we speak and offer (very) limited availability today. If you are looking for a low powered network for instant use, have a look at LoRa and/or Sigfox as discussed earlier, depending on your geographical location. While both are still under heavy development as well, they do already cover large parts of Europe and smaller parts of the US and Asia, to name just a few.
Cat 1 and Cat 0
LTE Cat 1 expands on the 4G portfolio (not offering the same features and/or benefits though, read on) and is currently the only full LTE based IoT standard available today, taking full advantage of the broad range and wide coverage LTE networks have to offer – fully standardized, as part of the 3GGP Release 8. While it doesn’t offer the same performance as 3G networks (that’s also why it was never seen as a relevant broadband service in Europe) it is an excellent fit for low bandwidth and browser based IoT applications. As the 3G technology is slowly being deprecated (also referred to as ‘sunsets’) world-wide, it is expected that Cat 1 will take its place instead. Think of Cat 1 as an early, potentially attractive alternative for IoT applications over LTE.
LTE Cat 0 is part of the 3GGP Release 12 and is considered to be the foundation for the earlier mentioned LTE-M standard. Different from Cat 1, Cat 0 has been designed with IoT in mind, as such it also offers lower data rates for both up and download aimed at power consumption, while at the same time making it cheaper because of this. Complexity, as opposed to Cat 1, has been reduced by over 50% by including only one receiver antenna and support for half-duplex operations. Where Cat 1 might take the place of 3G once it ‘sunsets’ LTE-M (with some help from Cat 0) will probably do the same for 2G in the (near) future.
Since the earlier published IoT networking technology cheat sheet contains a lot of additional (more technical) information, I’ve included it here as well. Read the accompanying blogpost for some more detailed information.
Which technology or network type will prevail in the future is (very) hard to predict. In fact, there’s no real reason why they should be mutual exclusive, they don’t have to be. The fact that LTE networks have such a broad range globally and that they can also be used to provide NB-IOT and LTE-M networks with relative ease could oppose a threat to LPWAN networks. Especially when companies like Verizon and AT&T are the ones pushing the technology. Though the same can be said for LoRa as well, companies such as IBM and Cisco are showing immense interest, as are CSP’s like Swisscom and KPN.
On the other hand, with the LTE/cellular companies focussing on the high-end market, so to speak, and the LPWAN providers focussing on the lower to mid-market range, mainly in the form of sensor based data transport, there could be room for both. It also depends on in which part of the world or country (in some cases) you reside. If we look at Europe, the LPWAN networks are globally distributed already (LoRa in particular) while standards like NB-IOT and LTE-M and other closely related variants are still to be implemented. In the US and other parts of the world, it’s the direct opposite.
Other factors like, the rise of the 5G network (standards have yet to be defined – 2018), which is supposed to be operational for commercial use in 2020, or at least parts of it, the type of IoT devices and applications used, in terms of bandwidth and throughput, but also, capabilities around signal penetration and security might become more prominent going forward. In the end, it will all depend on the use-case at hand, since different network technologies will have different characteristics, the range of (I)IoT is too broad to fit ‘just’ one or two networks. Perhaps it’s not fair to say that every IoT application has its own unique requirements, but in some cases, a statement like this is not that far of.
All in all, lots of pros, cons and other consideration. If you haven’t done so already, make sure to check out parts one and two of this series as well, to get a complete picture.