IoT demands a connection re-think

Cisco estimates that within three years, IoT devices will generate a staggering 400 zettabytes (ZB) of data a year. This deluge of new data traffic is forcing mobile operators to look beyond their cellular and wireless networks. 

Orange, for example, is investing in a new Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) network in France. Construction will start in 2016 and is planned to cover the majority of metropolitan France.

“Orange has an ambition to become the number one operator for the Internet of Things. To answer all the needs, we decided, as a supplement to the cellular networks, to deploy a national network dedicated to objects that need narrow-band connectivity, and also to low energy consumption,” said CEO Stephane Richard.

Orange selected the ultra-narrowband technology called LoRa (Long Range) because it offers very low power consumption in connected devices and very long range. The trade-off is slower data rates (less than 50kpbs), which is acceptable for many IoT applications like meters and sensors. A smart meter, for instance, only needs to send a few packets a data.

LoRa is backed by Cisco, IBM, Actility, Semtech as well as operators SK Telecom, Swisscom, Bouygues and Orange. It is one of the leading LPWA candidates, which also includes Weightless SIG, and proprietary network technology from companies like Telensa, Sigfox, Huawei.

Worldwide, LPWA networks are expected to become the workhorse of M2M connectivity. Machina Research forecasts over 3 billion LPWA M2M connections by 2023. "[This] will be a remarkable feat for a set of technologies that did not even have a collective name until 2013. Traditional cellular technologies have been bumped to number two spot, although the overall effect of the emergence of LPWA technologies is expected to add wide area connections, rather than to substitute for cellular connections,”  said Machina’s chief research officer Jim Morrish.

The important of LPWA in IoT has been recognised by the GSMA. It recently launched the ‘Mobile IoT Initiative’, backed by 26 mobile operators, OEMs, chipset, module and infrastructure companies to look at LPWA technology in licensed spectrum. It is expects that “initial specifications for LPWA solutions will be completed by the end of 2015 and included in 3GPP Release 13, with first implementations in early 2016 and full commercial solutions following later in the year.”

According to the GSMA, LPWA networks possess several characteristics that make them particularly attractive for devices and applications that require low mobility and low levels of data transfer:

·         Low power consumption that enable devices to last up to 10 years on a single charge

·         Optimised data transfer that supports small, intermittent blocks of data

·         Low device unit cost that can be sub-$5 per module

·         Few base stations required to provide coverage

·         Easy installation of the network

·         Dedicated network authentication

·         Optimised for low throughput, long or short distance

·         Sufficient indoor penetration and coverage

Evolving cellular and wireless

However, LPWA will not be the answer to all IoT uses, which is why there is significant research into LTE evolution. For instance, Intel, Nokia and Ericsson are working on Narrowband-LTE (NB-LTE) which they believe is the route to power efficiency for IoT devices which needed higher mobility. Meanwhile, Qualcomm is pushing 4G MTC (machine type communications) which would run at a higher bit rate.

And the Wi-Fi Alliance is seeking a wireless standard fit for IoT. The 802.11ah standard would offer long range (up to 1km), low power Wi-Fi and 100kpbs data rates, and support nearly 8000 devices connected to one access point. Unlike LPWA technologies, the Wi-Fi standard would operate in 900MHz unlicensed spectrum.

Licensed or unlicensed

Whichever technology operators select, they will be faced with the question of using licensed or unlicensed radio spectrum. The Wireless IoT Forum believes that national telecom regulators such as Ofcom and the FCC need to dedicate bandwidth to IoT to ensure the monetization and long-term sustainability of networks and services.  “It is clear the Internet of Things is a key technology to boost productivity, alleviate key societal challenges, improve our working lives and to deliver growth and employment,” explained William Webb, WIoTF CEO.

“For these reasons it merits a higher level of regulatory attention than many other wireless applications. We would like to see regulators dedicate bands in the range 800MHz-1000MHz to IoT applications, thus overcoming interference issues. Where IoT is deployed in general purpose unlicensed bands we would like to see “light licensing” approaches for base stations removing duty cycle restrictions and enabling higher power levels.”


Stewart Baines
Stewart Baines

I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.