From NB-IoT to LoRaWAN: Will there be one standard to rule them all?

16 May 2018

Image: metamorworks/Shutterstock

Sensors capable of sending data streams remotely as part of the IoT sphere are going to be big business, but with so many standards it gets confusing quite fast.

Away from the consumer business of personal assistants and smart kettles, the internet of things (IoT) is expected to generate huge sums of revenue and spending in the years to come, with applications ranging from shipping to smart cities.

In fact, estimates last year from IDC predicted that, by the year 2021, global spending on IoT is expected to reach almost $1.4trn thanks to the expected surge in interest in utility connectivity through smart grids for energy and water, for example.

Yet behind the relatively straightforward concept are myriad acronyms that all stem to one single concept: a low-power wide-area network (LPWAN).

For example, if you wanted to build an IoT sensor network in an enormous space, such as an industrial farm, the best way to collect that data is to build a LPWAN that sends data either sporadically or constantly using the least amount of power, but over the widest area.

Efforts to make sensors completely self-reliant have, in fact, driven engineers to find incredible means of turning plants into IoT sensors.

The technology might be uniform in its purpose, but the way that information is sent has sparked a competitive market that can be very confusing to someone looking to setup their own LPWAN.

Do you want a narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) network? Or perhaps you’d prefer the solution provided by LoRaWAN or Sigfox? Maybe you would prefer to consult the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) to see what it says?

If this sounds confusing to you, you’re not alone. Right now, there is no definitive standard for LPWAN, but rather a multitude of different standards for different purposes.

A simpler breakdown lies in the question of cellular versus non-cellular – the former using licensed cellular frequencies, while non-cellular make use of the unlicensed industrial, scientific and medical (ISM) radio bands.

Cellular kingpins

Looking at cellular, there are two definite frontrunners for taking the ‘crown’ of the go-to options: LTE-M and NB-IoT.

LTE-M is seen as the somewhat safer option for those looking to set up a network because it is completely compatible with existing cellular networks which are only expected to become bigger over time, hence their popularity with the big networks such as Verizon and AT&T in the US.

Meanwhile, in Europe and other parts of the globe, NB-IoT has become the favourite of companies like Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone because it has a much lower throughput than LTE-M and could eventually win out because it has the backing of 3GPP – one of the few groups attempting to agree upon a single standard.

“[This] should give it an advantage over other standards as it can rely on an ecosytem of [manufacturers] and operators who understand the 3GPP portfolio of standards,” said Dr Tim Forde, executive director of Connect, the Science Foundation Ireland research centre for future networks and communications at Trinity College Dublin.

“However, like the other LPWAN standards, it also suffers from uncertainty about the potential of this market, and uncertainty around how that potential can be tapped.”

This uncertainty, he added, could lead to a chicken and egg problem where groups are afraid to use it because LTE-M’s ecosystem is just better developed. Who likes risk, after all?

The non-cellular option

But then on the non-cellular side, options such as Sigfox and LoRaWAN have risen to become the darling of many of the biggest tech companies.

While the former has had successful roll-outs across many nations in Europe – including Ireland – LoRaWAN is considered the frontrunner simply because it has enormous industrial backing from none other than Alibaba, Cisco, IBM and others.

LoRaWAN in particular has drawn considerable interest because, as a non-cellular network, it isn’t limited by access to nearby cell towers and also offers greater data protection for researchers and companies alike.

But will we ever see the day where an IoT standard is established, rather than having more than a dozen different ones all not communicating with one another?

It is worth bearing in mind that each standard has its own pros and cons, and each standard was originally designed with specific performance and usage characteristics.

While all of the current standards are very capable of performing automatic meter reading (AMR) – such as in a home or factory – different needs call for different hardware and bandwidth.

“When you start asking for more frequent sensor readings from more hard to reach places and from sensors on the move, you begin to place strain on the standard,” Forde said.

“And when you begin to demand more reliability and resilience from the system – something that’s really not required from a meter reading standard – then you need to address those use case demands in creative ways within the constraints of the standard.”

What about 5G?

Looking to the future, those invested in the advancement of the technology are certain the costs of running a network will fall, but the technology is just too new for, say, a mine operator to dive straight into LPWAN.

Rather, significant guidance will be needed, and this need for guidance could put off many of the major network operators.

“Big network operators, the ones who want to use 3GPP standards, just aren’t interested in going on that journey,” Forde said.

“They want customers who can roll up to their network with 100,000 users [or] devices ready to connect to the network. The smaller network operators who are willing to explore difference opportunities, in partnership with the sector experts, have the advantage.”

By the time 5G is officially standardised next year by 3GPP, much of the work achieved with LPWAN so far could be made to look redundant quite quickly, with promises of up to 1m connection per square kilometre.

We will just have to wait and see.

Updated, 9.55am, 18 May 2018: This article was updated to remove mistaken references to LoRa, which we have now clarified as LoRaWAN.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic