Low Power WANs

LPWANs race for scale as NB-IoT juggernaut looms closer

While the mobile operators prepare to roll out LTE-based NB-IoT for low power wide area (LPWA) M2M networks, the alternatives in unlicensed spectrum are building momentum while they still have the field to themselves.

Sigfox, LoRa and other solutions in sub-1 GHz ISM spectrum are starting to move beyond one-off deployments to achieve real regional or even national scale, while Ingenu is plowing a lonelier furrow in 2.4 GHz. Sigfox has announced that it will expand its US roll-out tenfold, covering 100 cities by partnering with tower, rooftop, and billboard site owners, among them Outfront Media, which has 25,000 advertising sites, mainly in densely populated area. This and other deals give Sigfox access to 230,000 potential sites for its base stations – though it is keeping quiet about how many base stations it will actually be installing.

Allen Proithis, president of Sigfox north America, told us that the expanded network will still be kept inhouse, and run in the same way as the company’s original French network. In other markets, the company uses network partners and revenue share agreements to build out coverage thout having to construct the networks itself, but Proithis confirmed that Sigfox isn’t planning on rolling its US operations into one of these Sigfox Network Operator (SNO) agreements.

After launching in Brazil last week, Sigfox now finds itself in 18 countries, covering 7m devices – a figure that hasn’t changed in a while, but is certainly capable of rapid hockey-stick shaped growth once foundations are laid and customers signed up.

This year, Sigfox has switched to chasing channel deals rather than individual customers, and has so far signed a contract with Altice, covering two of the group’s assets – French MNO SFR and Portugal Telecom – and likely to add its Cablevision and Suddenlink companies in France the US soon. This will see business customers offered Sigfox connectivity as an option.

Back in March, Sigfox also announced a deal with Microsoft to let Sigfox customers access the Azure IoT cloud to manage their deployments – this could also drive customers from Azure into Sigfox, eventually.

Proithis added that the company plans to use an SNO to cover Canada, but that “frankly money is not an issue thanks to our funding and the low cost nature of our technology. Market demand remains very strong.”

For Sigfox, expanding capacity to meet this market demand should be pretty straightforward. Where there is network congestion, it simply has to install another base station – and as that’s an internal process, it doesn’t have to prompt an SNO to do so.

The flipside of this is that the US is a very large country, and rolling out a network that achieves 100% territorial coverage would be very costly. Focusing on cities, where the most people and devices are found per square mile, allows Sigfox to provide comprehensive population coverage quickly, before expanding out into the countryside to meet demand as it is identified.

One of the competitors is Ingenu, which is pressing ahead with its similar city-focused expansion, also aiming for a national US network in time, as part of its Machine Network initiative. Its most recent win is with the utilities wing of the City of Riverside, California, which will use Ingenu’s RPMA tech to connect its assets and 108,000 customers. Ingenu is hoping to tackle the largest cities in the US before blanketing the rest of the country using a very small number of towers.

Meanwhile, Semtech’s LoRa technology is currently being trialed and deployed by a number of companies, but differs from Sigfox in that Semtech itself isn’t aiming to own the network. Instead, it is generating revenue from the sale of its chips, while using the LoRa Alliance to build awareness of the technology and promote its adoption.

But the slow rumble of the NB-IoT is gaining volume, so LPWA players have a limited amount of time to stake their claims and build revenue before the gargantuan sales channels of the MNOs can get to work, and the associated MVNO community can leverage its own channels into businesses looking to embrace the Internet of Things.

Some of those businesses are going to want the equivalent of a private WLAN, and may well opt for a non-cellular LPWAN technology on the merits of its performance, but many will want national access and would seem more likely to be receptive to the sales pitch of an incumbent operator.

One of the essentials for an LPWA player to survive will be low cost hardware and Ingenu has announced a partnership with Taiwanese ODM Compal Electronics, to produce RPMA-enabled devices aimed at a variety of vertical industries including asset management, transportation and logistics. The devices will include Ingenu’s picoNode, an RPMA-enabled module less than the size of a US quarter, and designed for smaller form factors.

“The global demand for RPMA solutions is skyrocketing and Compal is a key strategic partner in helping Ingenu scale quickly to meet this demand,” CEO John Horn said. “Having a robust ecosystem is key to the widespread adoption of RPMA technology … the collaborative efforts in improving the design of our technology will offer a wider range of device options to our current and future customers.”

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