Licensed spectrum key to success of LPWA networks


Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) networks will play a crucial role in the development of the Internet of Things (IoT), connecting up billions of devices across a diverse range of vertical industry sectors such as utilities, agriculture, manufacturing and transport. They are an emerging, high-growth area of the IoT that complement and extend conventional wide area networks that make use of 2G, 3G and 4G cellular technologies. LPWA networks are designed for low cost applications that have low data rates, long battery lives, long reach and operate in remote and hard to reach locations where existing mobile technologies may not be well suited.

They are an emerging, high-growth area of the IoT that complement and extend conventional wide area networks that make use of 2G, 3G and 4G cellular technologies. LPWA networks are designed for low cost applications that have low data rates, long battery lives, long reach and operate in remote and hard to reach locations where existing mobile technologies may not be well suited.

This could be anything from industrial asset tracking, safety monitoring, water and gas metering to smart grids, city parking, vending machines and city lighting. The LPWA market has the potential to be huge with Analysys Mason estimating that there will be 5 billion LPWA connections by 2022 with a value of $7.5 billion.

The GSMA established the Mobile IoT Initiative in June 2015 with the support of over thirty mobile operators and other industry vendors; and with the specific purpose of aligning the mobile industry behind common and complementary LPWA technologies in licensed spectrum to accelerate the availability of commercial solutions.

Due to the diversity of IoT application requirements, a single technology is not capable of addressing every LPWA use case. For this reason we have focused on three complementary technologies: Narrow-Band IoT (NB-IoT), and two pre-existing evolved technologies, EC-GSM-IoT and LTE MTC Cat-M1. These will cover all LPWA use cases, ensure customer choice and help the market to flourish. They have been ratified and standardised by 3GPP.

Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT)

The GSMA also established a separate group called the GSMA NB-IoT Forum to accelerate the wide-spread adoption of 3GPP-based NB-IoT technology. NB-IoT is a standards-based Low Power Wide Area technology developed to enable a wide range of new IoT devices and services. NB-IoT significantly improves the power consumption of user devices, system capacity and spectrum efficiency, especially in deep coverage. Battery life of more than 10 years can be supported for a wide range of use cases. NB-IoT can co-exist with 2G, 3G, and 4G mobile networks and benefits from all the security and privacy mobile network features, such as support for user identity confidentiality, entity authentication, confidentiality, data integrity, and mobile equipment identification.

Crucially, the Mobile IoT initiative focuses on solutions in licensed spectrum, which is a more reliable choice, offering a better quality of service than unlicensed. Unlicensed is free and open to anybody to use but has a number of significant drawbacks. For example, it is subject to interference and congestion and cannot be relied upon to deliver a pre-defined quality of service. In some markets, regulatory restrictions can also apply to the use of unlicensed spectrum making it difficult to generate global economies of scale. Conversely, licensed spectrum offers customers a choice without locking them into a particular technology or supplier as their business changes.

It is also scalable, secure and its infrastructure provides a Quality of Service (QoS) unlike unlicensed spectrum, which has restrictive data message lengths and availability. Given the limitations of unlicensed spectrum, mobile operators have a clear long-term preference to employ licensed spectrum for LPWA, as this will enable them to build a sustainable long-term global IoT market presence.

We are now really starting to see momentum in the market with live commercial network deployments as well as a number of pilots and trials. For example, LPWA networks are bringing connectivity to utility meters beyond the reach of existing wireless solutions, enabling energy and water grids to become smarter and more efficient. Because LPWA devices transmit relatively low amounts of data, the overall cost of the solution is kept to a minimum, meaning that the technology can be retrofitted at relatively low cost.

LPWA also gives water companies the ability to remotely monitor water usage in many below ground locations, meaning they can take readings more regularly and will become less dependent on manual or drive by readings.

Of course LPWA adoption will depend on its cost effectiveness, and in this respect, there are a number of ways in which LPWA has the edge over conventional solutions. Existing mobile-enabled remote monitoring solutions such as AT&T’s HydroPoint have proved their value by saving their customers $137 million and 15 billion gallons of water in 2015 alone.

AT&T and Ericsson are also trialling the use of low cost connected sensors to remotely monitor the temperature, conductivity and turbidity of the Chattahoochee River, which supplies four million people with drinking water in the southern United States. Vodafone and water group Aguas de Valencia are trialling smart meters that can monitor customers’ water usage in near real-time, cutting costs and helping to balance supply and demand.

Huawei has also partnered with Vodafone for a pilot on NB-IoT smart parking in Spain that will allow users to access parking data remotely and check the availability of spots including directions on how to reach them. If drivers knew in advance which spaces were vacant, they would spend less time and waste less fuel searching for a place to park.

LPWA technologies will become cost-effective for telecoms operators to relay real-time information on parking availability to drivers’ smartphones or dashboard computers. Deutsche Telekom, who recently announced the world’s first NB-IoT end-to-end system in Germany with Huawei, are also testing a prototype LPWA parking system on its campus in Bonn in Germany and has trialled it on its commercial network in the Netherlands.

Role of the LPWA networks operator

Critical to all of this is the role of the operator. Operators can integrate LPWA connectivity into their existing IoT platforms and achieve further economies of scale, lowering prices and enabling new IoT applications. When it comes to selecting a LPWA network provider, businesses require reliability, continuity and a provider they can trust. With proven, secure and reliable end-to-end IoT platforms, as well as vast experience in handling millions of connections and securing data mobile networks, operators are the obvious candidates.

They already have extensive tower networks and backhaul capacity, and can offer IoT customers domestic as well as international network coverage. They can even reuse their existing infrastructure and licensed spectrum to support LPWA networks.

Already under way are numerous trials and pilots from our members that will speed up the development of services using this technology and get them out into the open market. From smart metering to smart parking, to smart bikes being able to monitor road terrain, it is clear that LPWA is going to change the lives of consumers and businesses alike. MI


Dr. Shane Rooney, executive director, GSMA on the Connected Living Programme. Bringing together strategies and synergies across the M2M verticals and the wider IoT ecosystems, he has a wealth of experience in mobile communications, particularly in enterprise solutions and M2M – with global experience in a number of operators including Etisalat, Vodafone and Hutchison.


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Nicholas Nhede is an experienced energy sector writer based in Clarion Event's Cape Town office. He has been writing for Smart Energy International’s print and online media platforms since 2015, on topics including metering, smart grids, renewable energy, the Internet of Things, distributed energy resources and smart cities. Originally from Zimbabwe, Nicholas holds a diploma in Journalism and Communication Studies. Nicholas has a passion for how technology can be used to accelerate the energy transition and combat climate change.