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Low Power WANs

Orange plays the field with IoT trials

Mobile operators are facing a familiar timing dilemma when it comes to smart cities. They can target wide area IoT applications aggressively, but make technology compromises, or they can wait for a year or two until it becomes clearer which of the many network choices will have staying power. Or they can keep all their options open, as Orange is doing in France.

Despite the buzz around low power wide area (LPWA) applications like smart lighting and traffic management, most MNOs are playing a wait and see game, but with other players moving into the field – including broadband providers, private networks and city authorities themselves – they risk wasting a significant opportunity.

Those non-MNOs are, of course, forced to use unlicensed spectrum, with its inherent limitations in terms of security and quality of service. But while the mobile carriers will be able to harness their spectrum to offer a higher grade service, they will have to wait for the low power implementation of LTE to be standardized first.

Orange is playing all sides against the middle, using one of the prominent unlicensed spectrum technologies, LoRa, along with enhancing its networks in good old GSM, still the basis of most mobile machine-to-machine connections. Its latest trial, conducted with Ericsson, sees IoT services running over enhanced-GSM and over emerging low power LTE networks, the latter supported by modems from Sequans.

Ericsson and Orange announced their trials this week, while recognizing that optimal LTE-based technologies would not be standardized until late 2016 at best. Release 13, whose specs should be frozen in March, will include standards geared to optimized M2M (LTE-M) and low power wide area operations (NB-IoT). The 3GPP is currently working on final specifications for the latter, which will blend the features of two proposals, Ericsson-backed NB-LTE and Huawei’s Cellular IoT.

LTE-M targets maximum data rate as low as 100-200Kbps with enhanced spectral efficiency, and though there are no firm dates, commercial chips are likely to appear from mid-2017. They will overlap with NB-IoT, but this will target somewhat different applications, with even lower data rates (50Kbps) and wide area coverage.

Presumably there are elements of NB-LTE – which is understood to dominate the NB-IoT specs – in Orange’s trial, which will, of necessity, have to use a combination of pre-standard LTE technologies, or existing ones which are not fully optimized for IoT. On the modem side, current low power LTE implementations are focused on Category 1, a once-neglected aspect of the existing standards which has been revived amid the need for low power IoT technologies. LTE-only modem makers like Sequans and Altair are already shipping Cat-1 chips and Qualcomm announced its own plans to ship these in early 2016.

Ericsson has been working on systems that incorporate Cat-1’s Power Saving Mode (PSM), and it will incorporate this mode into its GSM and LTE infrastructure in the first half of next year. It is trialling this with AT&T and Altair in the US, but in France its modem partner is local LTE-only leader Sequans. Ericsson says PSM extends the battery life of communication modules such as sensors by up to 10 years.

The GSM aspect of the Orange/Ericsson trial will be a world first for the EC-GSM (Extended Coverage) technology and will run in the 900 MHz 2G band, targeting a sevenfold improvement in range for low data rate applications, and a device reachability boost of up to 20dB. These features will help extend reliable coverage into deep basements (for smart meters) or remote areas (for agriculture or infrastructure monitoring, for instance).

Of course, a key element of the IoT business case is to make those millions of devices as cheap as possible, and on the LTE side, Sequans says its low complexity implementations will support 60% cost reduction compared to LTE Cat-4. Sequans’ chips are fitted with one receive antenna instead of the standard two to reduce cost and complexity and support half-duplex FDD. Machina analyst Andy Castonguay believes Cat-1 modules now cost between $18 and $25, with Cat-M aiming for $7-10 and NB-IoT for about $5.

In the commercial IoT world, Orange is deploying the LoRa technology in the 868 MHz unlicensed band and said this week that it would extend its roll-out to 17 cities. Alain Maloberti, SVP of Orange Labs Networks, said in a statement: “IoT is a key area in Orange’s Essentials2020 strategic plan, and France should play a key role in IoT take-off in Europe. In order to extend our connectivity offer, we are currently deploying a LoRa network. At the same time, we are preparing the future of cellular networks.”

As part of its five-year plan, Orange has targeted revenues of €600m from IoT by 2018.

LoRa will be deployed, during the first quarter of 2016, in Angers, Avignon, Bordeaux, Douai and Lens, Grenoble, Lille, Lyon, Marseille, Montpellier, Nantes, Nice, Paris, Rennes, Rouen, Toulon, Toulouse and Strasbourg. Orange is an investor in LoRa Alliance founding member Actility.

Orange has also extended its Datavenue big data service to support data from LoRa connections. Start-ups and enterprise partners can use Orange’s turnkey connectivity kit to prototype connected objects and create Lora-based services. The data from these prototypes is processed by Datavenue. A new feature of the platform, Live Objects, allows companies to select connected objects and sensors from a catalog and choose a connectivity option from LoRa, cellular or home gateway.

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