The Wireless Future—But What Flavor?

By Martin Keenan

Industrial Internet of Things designers face quite a few challenges in today's market, but options are available.

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It's a particularly challenging time for Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) designers planning for the future. With older networks set to be mothballed within years, and with newer networks still not fully developed, there is considerable flux in the wireless market. Let's take a look at the available options.

Just a few months ago, the first consumer 5G network launched in the United Kingdom, thanks to EE, followed swiftly by Vodafone soon thereafter. While this milestone is excellent news for consumers (at least those in the initial coverage area), the picture is not so clear for wireless developers, and even less so for engineers developing IIoT products and services.

Migration to 5G Raises Questions
As initial consumer 5G services attract subscribers, a gradual process of migration begins, which will ultimately lead to the switch-off of the older networks as they become economically unsustainable to operate. This process might take months or years, but the clock is ticking. Indeed, Vodafone has already committed to 3G switch-off within the next two to three years, but it may retain the older GPRS network for longer to support machine-to-machine (M2M) and IoT services.

Andrea Dona, the head of Vodafone's UK Mobile Network, told Pocket Lint: "2G will have a longer lifetime, a longer role to play, especially when it comes to the Internet of Things [like smart meters, for example] where you actually don't need speed, you don't need the capacity, you just need it to be ticking away in the background with low power… it doesn't make economic sense to go out and change these devices."

LPWA to the Rescue?
With this uncertain future for older networks, it seems obvious to look to the new breed of low-power wide-area (LPWA) technologies for support. These are specifically intended for IoT use, having minimal power draw and wide-area coverage, as well as low integration costs. However, the picture there is no clearer due to a raft of competing standards, and when a designer looks to the international market (particularly across Europe), those competing standards and varied adoption and rollout plans create a somewhat complex picture.

Essentially, there are two major 3GPP competitor standards: Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT), also known as LTE CatNB1 or LTE-M2, and Long-Term Evolution for Machines (LTE-M), also known as Cat-M1 or Cat-M. There is also the complementary extended coverage GSM-IoT (EC-GSM-IoT), which—as the name hints—upgrades existing GPRS and GSM networks for IoT devices via a software update. Finally, there are also two main alternative proprietary LPWA technologies, LoRaWAN and Sigfox.

While these are all established standards in the market and are supported by various hardware manufacturers, the question of adoption and coherent rollout is inevitably even more fragmented. While general consensus is gradually emerging in some areas, others remain highly opaque, mainly due to the complex operating strategies of the regional networks. Of course, even if a clear consensus were reached on standards, then network rollout would undoubtedly be staggered, so achieving nationwide coverage would not necessarily follow.

Patchwork Rollout
For example, Vodafone has made big commitments to NB-IoT in the U.K., running a series of pilots with utility companies, and has NB-IoT development centers in Germany, Italy, South Africa and the United State. Meanwhile, O2 trialed "3GPP-compliant IoT connectivity" back in 2017, but it also has local LoRaWAN and Sigfox deployments; it is still unclear whether O2 will commit to a single standard.

EE, on the other hand, has deployed LoRaWAN in London and Milton Keynes, while Orange executives recently made strong commitments to LoRaWAN deployment in Europe. Orange's head of technical strategy, Ronan Le Bras, states: "Orange is pleased to see the growth of the LoRaWAN ecosystem and the adoption of this open and interoperable standard in all parts of the world. Orange selected LoRaWAN for its first network dedicated to the IoT in 2016 to address sensors and other affordable objects consuming little energy. The Orange LoRaWAN network covers over 30,000 municipalities and 95 percent of the population of Metropolitan France. In 2018, Orange Slovakia launched a service using LoRaWAN for smart-city use cases."

LoRaWAN networks are certainly being actively deployed globally, with the Asia-Pacific and European regions showing the most growth, at 30 percent and 50 percent in 2018, respectively according to the LoRa Alliance.

Short-Term vs. Long-Term Choices
Against this backdrop of uncertainty, what options do IIoT designers have? Choosing a standard based on coverage might seem a sensible move, but it could easily lead to operator lock-in and/or rapid obsolescence. Another option is to swallow the cost of more expensive chipsets that can use both older GPRS networks and newer spectrum, allowing devices to fall back to GPRS if network coverage drops out. Companies should carefully model these alternatives before making a selection, due to the wide variety of variables, especially for a longer-term IIoT deployment.

Martin Keenan is the technical director at Avnet Abacus, which assists and informs design engineers in the latest technological advances. With the IoT and Industry 4.0 changing manufacturing, Avnet Abacus helps designers find the best technological fit for their industrial applications, and accelerates the process all the way from idea to market.