LPWAN Technology: Not One or the Other, But Both

By Olivier Hersent

As the public and private sectors adopt 3GPP cellular IoT technologies and LoRaWAN in tandem, it's best to begin by considering the appropriate use cases for both and the separate benefits of each.

The Internet of Things is quickly gaining momentum all around the world—from the Netherlands to China to Australia to the United States—with governments, private companies and large public agencies all taking part. The IoT, offering capabilities to measure, monitor and control processes, products and activities at the most granular scale, can deliver a vast array of applications and benefits in many different industries, particularly in industrial and consumer settings.

The core wireless technology enabling the IoT for industrial and citywide applications (rather than in consumers' living rooms) is developing as quickly as new uses are being identified. Some major network operators are beginning to deploy the LTE cellular IoT (3GPP) standards, CatM1 and NB1, for their IoT needs. The most visible 3GPP deployment is definitely Verizon, which recently announced a partnership with Qualcomm to use CatM1 LTE modems in an IoT network. With these cellular technologies on the rise, some have suggested that other already-deployed low-power wide-area network (LPWAN) technologies, such as LoRaWAN, will fall out of favor. LoRaWAN is an existing, open-standard technology designed to connect things wirelessly over long ranges (up to 15 kilometers) with a battery life of up to ten years when deployed in regional, national or global networks.

But increasingly, major telecom operators, including Orange, APT and Swisscom, are planning to use 3GPP cellular IoT technologies and LoRaWAN in tandem. Such a complementary solution will potentially be the best route to implementing the IoT in all of the places in which it's needed. As the public and private sectors adopt these technologies, it's best to begin by considering the appropriate use cases for both and the separate benefits of each.

LPWAN: Lower Cost Lower Power
The power consumption performance of most LPWAN uses cases, with a few tens of messages per day, is five times better than CatNB1, and the maximum current demanded from the battery is an order of magnitude lower. LPWAN is all about lowest cost and lowest power consumption, and is often much better for these purposes than CatNB1, the current 3GPP state-of-the-art technology (which requires 3GPP LTE Release 13 networks). In many use cases, LPWAN applications demand a decade of battery life or more. The lower current requirements of LoRaWAN can mean an order of magnitude difference in battery size compared to Cat NB1 for the same lifetime, or a much longer lifetime for a given battery size. Either reduces the total cost of ownership (TCO) of a LoRaWAN solution to significantly less than that of its 3GPP counterpart. Companies, governments and organizations seeking to power their things with little cost and little energy output should consider LoRaWAN as their technology of choice.

Because it transmits over unlicensed radio spectrum, LPWAN technology is also available as an alternative to the national telco operators making headlines recently. Most IoT applications, particularly for industrial IoT, do not demand a national public communications network. These applications, in what is known as "campus" scenarios, include smart factories, smart buildings, smart streets and even smart agriculture, in which there are dense deployments of thousands of sensors in a small area connected by onsite dedicated LPWAN base stations. These campus scenarios are much simpler to deploy and manage with unlicensed spectrum technologies, including LPWAN.

3GPP Technologies: Consumer-Friendly
3GPP technologies have certain capabilities that LPWAN—and specifically LoRaWAN—lack. 3GPP technologies are optimized for consumer use cases. For example, when a device needs to stream a picture or video, high-bandwidth 3GPP technologies or Wi-Fi needs are required. In many consumer situations, from wearables to smart homes, 3GPP technology is likely to be the best route.

3GPP technologies can also help network providers like Verizon expand their business services to offer better connectivity through IoT technology and computing capabilities. These new capabilities can help network providers create a foothold in new sectors, including retail point of sale and asset tracking, among many others. For telco operators, 3GPP LPWAN is simultaneously familiar and a transformative step toward new business models and new opportunities.

Mixing the Two Together
3GPP and LoRaWAN technologies have different strengths, and in the future they are likely to be complementary, rather than competitors. They can already be found working together in a variety of use cases throughout the world. For example, an LPWAN campus base station monitoring thousands of smoke detectors in a large business building may use LoRaWAN to connect to individual devices and read and interpret their data, but when a detector is triggered, a video camera can be activated to stream a clear picture of the situation to the monitoring service through an LTE connection. Companies will need to tap into this collaborative potential to reap the full benefits of IoT connections to transform the way we run businesses, buildings, energy production and agriculture.

Olivier Hersent is the founder and CTO of Actility, an IoT platform provider that, through its ThingPark Wireless platform, supports low-power wide-area networks for a range of smart-city applications. Prior to founding Actility, he founded NetCentrex, a leading provider of VoIP infrastructure for service providers, then became CTO of Comverse after the acquisition of NetCentrex in 2006. Hersent is a recognized thought leader in the telecommunications and energy markets and is the author of several books on networking technology, VoIP, M2M, the IoT and the smart grid. He graduated from Ecole Polytechnique.