This year alone, as many as 6.4 billion ‘objects’ will get an IP and go online. However, today’s networks are not ready to cope with such a turn on of devices predicted to generate 403ZBs of data a year by 2018, up from 113.4ZBs in 2013.
To address this issue, several players in the connectivity space have come forward with different Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) network solutions, that are now looking to become ‘the’ IoT network standard as interoperability and scalability become evermore crucial to IoT success.
Designed specifically for low bandwidth, low-power IoT applications, LPWAs are poised to see huge growth over the next few years, with stakeholders across the industry now talking about LPWA technologies as a core enabler of the IoT.
LPWA profile IoT applications include metering, agriculture, vehicle telematics, tracking, healthcare, consumer products, and others. Strategy Analytics has estimated that 3.1 billion LPWA connections will be in place by 2020, with hardware, network and service revenues reaching $9.9 billion.
At its core, LPWA is an access technology for low-power, low-cost IoT devices, transmitting at low speeds, with low data usage per month, with very broad coverage (to the order of five to ten times the coverage of today’s cellular).
According to a Sierra Wireless whitepaper, LPWA technologies represent the industry’s response to the growing market need for inexpensive, low-bandwidth connectivity for IoT applications that are not suited to short-range wireless options like Bluetooth or ZigBee.
Speaking to CBR, Philippe Guillemette, CTO of wireless communications company Sierra Wireless, said that Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) is a strong answer for the demand propelled by the IoT and it "really has the objective to enable IoT on a very broad base".
Guillemette said: "You need a wireless reach of devices on the field but that reach has really to be seamless in the sense that it has to be wide area.
"Having something like Bluetooth, which is a short range connection, plus a gateway, plus the connectivity to the internet and self-services, it works, but it is pretty complicated compared to when you have something that you can deploy anywhere.
"Long range is going to reach that through wireless. It is going to reach the internet and it is a much valuable proposition in terms of being easier to deploy [as a lot of the infrastructure needed is already in place]."
There are many options when it comes to low-power standards brought to the debate by heavy networking weights.
Random phase multiple access (RPMA), for example, has been introduced by Ingenu as its LPWA answer to the market’s needs. It can cover as much as 300 sq miles per deployed tower giving wireless coverage to M2M communications.
Michael Vedomske, principal data scientist at Ingenu, said in a blog post that LPWA is the wireless technology of choice for affordable long-term device connectivity.
He said: "LPWA uniquely allows these savings because it, by definition, has long-lasting battery life, wider and deeper coverage areas, and lower module costs than traditional wireless services like cellular and mesh.
"With cellular standards bodies beginning to develop their own cellular LPWA they have effectively declared that LPWA truly is the wireless technology suited for the IoT."
French company SigFox has also designed its own low power network product, SIGFOX, and raised $115 million last year to roll it out globally, after trials in France, Spain, the UK, the Netherlands and soon in the US.
This week, SigFox has extended its low power network to Antarctica, in a partnership with Sensolus to connect the 2015-16 BELARE expedition, based in the Princess Elisabeth Antarctica Research Station, to the global SIGFOX network.
These are just two examples of LPWA technologies looking for mainstream adoption. Other low power network technologies vying to win the connectivity battle have been developed by the Dash 7 Alliance Protocol, LoRaWAN, nWave, Weightless-P and Weightless-N, IEEE 802.11ah and LTE Cat-M.
Guillemette said that to some extent we could already say that LPWA already exists with cellular today; however, cellular was missing two things.
"One was low power capability. It has constraints in terms of how often you would be able to receive a call for example, and it is those constraints that can drain the battery really quickly. It is not so powerful in the sense that it could last months or years on battery. One of the things that low power wide range technology wants to have is to be able to work on batteries for years.
"The other aspect is really very high ‘reachability’, if you have an equipment that is underground, it still has to work. It does not have to work very fast; it does not have to transmit data very fast. Yet, it has to be reachable.
"You want an extension with a gateway, low powered years of battery and you really want high reachability with that installation of the device (…) and of course it has to be cost effective."
Targeting this space, last August, the Groupe Speciale Mobile Association (GSMA) established the ‘Mobile IoT Initiative’ backed by 26 of the world’s leading mobile operators, OEMs, chipset, module and infrastructure companies. The group was formed in order to address the use of LPWA in licensed spectrum.
The initiative has been backed by companies like AT&T, Alcatel-Lucent, China Telecom, Deutsche Telekom, Ericsson, Huawei, Gemalto, Intel, Nokia, Orange, Qualcomm, Sierra Wireless, Singtel, Telefonica, Telenor, Telstra and Vodafone.
In December, those involved in the Mobile IoT Initiative agreed on technology standards for the emerging LPWA market and these standards have been accepted by 3GPP. The estimated value of the targeted market is $589 billion by 2020, according to Machina Research.
Currently, there are three standardisation processes taking place including: Long Term Evolution-Machine Type Communications (LTE-M), Extended Coverage GSM (EC-GSM) and Narrow Band (NB) IoT. The last one having already been accepted by the 3GPP as a standard.
Guillemette said: "We believe that if you want a strong map to grow, LPWA has to be a strong standard, like 3GPP enabled other technologies to be in the past 20 years.
"It is about creating something that is going to work wherever they deploy something in the US, South America, Europe, Asia. If you want seamless deployment and consistent, you need a standard."
LTE-M is part of the 3GPP LTE standard that employs new mechanisms to improve power consumption and battery life, and reduce device complexity. It also adds 18 dB of expanded coverage and has been designed to be deployed as a software upgrade to the network, so no new network hardware or spectrum is needed.
Guillemette said that work to formalise LTE-M as an IoT standard is "being done as we speak" and is slated to be completed by the end of March, with trials in Q4, 2016 and commercial availability in 2017.
As for EC-GSM, it is an LPWA extension of the GSM 2G standard that adds 20 dB of additional coverage, as well as new power efficiency capabilities, into the already low-cost GSM technology.
NB-IoT is targeting 20 dB coverage improvement and 200-kHz channels, and will support both standalone deployments and deployments within an existing LTE network.
He said: "About two years ago, 3GPP started to work on something that it will be IoT specific, and that is what we call LTE-M, however, there is not official name yet.
"The way 3GPP works is that every 18 months they release a new version of the standard. The 13th release includes the best LPWA technology, LTE-M.
"This is a result of two years of standardisation work with all the big industry players. It defines the network device that has a characteristic that it is cost effective, it is low powered with years on battery, and very extended coverage compared to existing cellular networks."
Roll outs of such technology are expected to start as early as H2 this year, according to Guillemette.
As LPWA technologies are under way to become a wide industry standard, he said that network infrastructure vendors have done a lot of work in being ready at the same time as the standard. "They will be ready in the next few months.
"The network deployment will see trials and deployment in the second half of this year. I am expecting extremely quick commercial deployment in 2017. We see a lot of industry traction.
"The earliest adopters will be the Americas and Australia, then Europe and Asia will be following around one quarter or two after those two."
With 2016 fast becoming a year of IoT roll outs, LPWA and its LTE-M vertical can expect to see a strong uptake by many in the IoT spectrum looking to connect all those tens of billion of devices. However, it still remains to be seen which low-powered network will ultimately win the standards revolution.