LTE-M – clarity on the path ahead

Freedom of choice is a wonderful thing – until you have to make a critical decision that’s going to affect your life – or your business – for years to come. Until recently, the range of wide area connectivity technologies for M2M and IoT applications was largely limited to cellular, satellite and WiFi. The last few years however have seen a small explosion take place in terms of new Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) wireless options, specifically tailored for the IoT space.

But which technology is the right one for all the different players – both private and public – now looking to exploit these technologies to serve their users and customers and build new business and new service models on top?

To get a better insight into some of the critical factors involved in making the right LPWA decision, IoT Now’s editor, Alun Lewis, recently spoke with Olivier Beaujard, VP market development at Sierra Wireless. Sierra Wireless is a company with deep roots in the M2M and IoT space that stretch right back to its formation around twenty years ago. Over that time the company has developed a full solution portfolio including embedded SIM devices, modules, gateways and connectivity and cloud services, encompassing 2G, 3G and 4G networks.

Alun Lewis (AL): Olivier, the LPWA space seems to be in a state of some ferment at the moment with many different technologies having come onto the market in a relatively short space of time. From your perspective as probably the leading supplier of embedded wireless modules to a global market, how do you characterise the current state of play in LPWA? 

Olivier Beaujard, VP market development, Sierra Wireless
Olivier Beaujard, VP market development, Sierra Wireless

Olivier Beaujard (OB) : The promise of extended battery life for devices, more cost effective coverage and better radio performance for lower data rates all make LPWA very attractive in terms of making the IoT vision a working reality around the world. That said, as ever, within that LPWA promise there is still a lot of hype and uncertainty, especially where the all-important issues of standardisation, intellectual property and eventual scalability come into play. Sierra’s presence in the key standards bodies in particular gives us the ability to both closely monitor strategic developments as they happen and get a clearer view of the likely terrain over the longer term. Additionally, feedback from our customers gives us invaluable insights into the practical realities on the ground and how the strengths and weaknesses of each different option will eventually play out.

In that context, we’re continuing to see a steady growth in what you might call ‘traditional’ IoT applications that we’ve always been strong in, such as automotive, logistics, energy, utilities, enterprise and point of sale (PoS). Now, if you listen closely to the customers’ requirements, both current and future, while they might not care what the underlying communications technology is called, they do know exactly what they want from it.

For a start, the issue of cost is paramount and scalability is critical in terms of keeping component prices down and addressing the larger market opportunity. Standardisation of performance profiles and form factors as well impacts design and manufacturing costs. Finally, there’s the overall investment to consider and how this will be paid back over the whole technology deployment lifecycle.

Secondly, there are the individual power requirements for each M2M/IoT module in its own particular environment. Even if a device is installed in a location where there is an external power source, such as in a car or energy meter, it must be able to keep working even if that power source fails. Even if it’s not classed as a ‘mission critical’ application as such, its operation must be regarded as seamless and trustworthy by the end user.

Finally, there’s the issue of bandwidth. After a long period where the industry has focused on pushing up data rates and squeezing performance out of the radio spectrum that would have been science fiction only a few decades ago, LPWA instead is concentrating on lower data rates. That said, there will be many application areas and markets where it makes sense to be able to support both high bandwidth services, such as video for surveillance, as well as these lower bandwidth demands, such as smoke alarms or consumer appliances. There’s also the related issue of spectrum cost and availability and the impact that interference may have on unlicensed spectrum compared to claimed performance levels.

We’ve crunched all these different factors together and for us the optimum path ahead is clear: the LPWA future lies in LTE and leveraging the existing LTE cellular infrastructure from the service providers. Indeed it’s already here in its initial phase, at least in our product portfolio with LTE Cat-1 modules that will be available in early 2016.  However, the real market expansion and deployment opportunity comes with LTE-M, which is getting set in the standards bodies next year and will begin to see deployments in 2017.

AL: So, looking into Sierra Wireless’s crystal ball – backed up of course with your insight into the standardisation groups – what do you see as being the likely LPWA road map for the next few years? 

OB: I’d be doing myself and the industry a disservice if I didn’t also recognise the intense activity underway amongst some of the proprietary LPWA solutions that are being proposed – more specifically the offerings from the LoRa Alliance and Semtech, SIGFOX and Ingenu. The sheer breadth and variety of the IoT universe does mean that there will always be scope for more than just one solution but, when you take into account the factors that I briefly touched on earlier, the rate of current progress in the standards bodies and amongst developers and manufacturers like ourselves, we believe that the ‘windows of opportunity’ for proprietary solutions is not as large as might have appeared several months ago. We must remember that cellular standards are all part of a long established and well-coordinated ecosystem that reduces the friction involved in the evolution of standards and that is why we have chosen to work very closely with the 3GPP standards body on this.

So where are we at the moment? On the LTE side, CAT 3 is already here while CAT 1 will be due for formal release in early 2016, followed by CAT 0 and we expect LTE-M around the middle of 2017.

GSM is also in the process of being adapted for M2M/IoT traffic and applications, in some cases to allow operators with existing GSM spectrum to use existing infrastructure for this purpose while migrating their human subscribers to LTE services. The technology proposed here is known as EC (Extended Coverage) GSM and is also due to arrive around the middle of 2016 (check 2017?).

Finally – and slightly further away on the horizon – are the NB-CIoT/NB-LTE solutions being proposed by Ericsson, Huawei and some others – NB here referring to Narrow Band.

In terms of our response to these developments, as well as being deeply involved with the standards bodies, we’re also working closely with infrastructure manufacturers and other major players to ensure that our role as a key module and gateway vendor is synchronised with their activities as providers of network and radio infrastructure. Once again, our ability to merge different standards into one chip – such as we’re doing to combine EC-GSM and LTE-M – but still fulfil historic physical form factor and connector requirements means that integration costs are lowered and time to market is reduced.

Sierra Wireless is putting in a lot of effort to help simplify LTE-M and we’re already working towards bringing module costs below that of today’s 2G modules.

AL: So what are the specific ‘sweet spots’ that Sierra sees LTE-M as fulfilling? 

OB: If you compare the key attributes I mentioned above across the breadth of solutions required to support the IoT, it should be clear that all the standardised technologies do meet the critical requirements of LPWA technologies. It should also be clear that these standardised approaches offer much more flexible and lower-risk approaches than the proprietary solutions currently available. However, there are several reasons why Sierra Wireless believes that LTE-M is best positioned to become the standard LPWA technology solution of choice.

Firstly, LTE-M reuses several aspects of the existing, widely deployed and well-understood LTE standard. This means that it will be much easier for original equipment manufacturers, solution vendors and network operators around the world to implement. In addition, this re-use allows LTE-M to provide similar low-latency transactions to traditional LTE. As a result, LTE-M can support real-time applications such as conversational voice services, which are required for some IoT applications such as automotive, security, smart home, and many other industrial applications. There are some very interesting developments underway here such as combining WebRTC with IoT – this makes it possible to merge voice and messaging services directly with the IoT domain with the potential to create some very innovative customer support or sales applications.

LTE-M also offers continuity for vendors and MNOs in all the other critical supporting areas beyond the basic connectivity such as security, roaming, mobility management and OSS/BSS integration. LTE-M will use the same field-tested, trusted and standardised security methods that cellular solutions use today. And, given that LTE-M is just a physical-layer change for operators, all upper-layer cellular features such as global roaming, billing, subscription management and general business support services will work seamlessly.

As if that weren’t enough by itself to prove the argument, LTE-M’s ability to share spectrum with standard LTE devices makes it a more attractive option for most MNOs than other LPWA alternatives, especially NB-CIoT. LTE-M includes mechanisms that give service providers the option of designating LTE-M IoT traffic as lower-priority than voice or video traffic from legacy higher-revenue subscribers. This capability benefits everyone involved: network operators gain major savings in both time and money by using a single network for latency-tolerant IoT traffic and higher-bandwidth real-time services, while also avoiding having to carve out scarce spectrum for IoT services that may take some time to ramp up. The mobile broadband subscribers themselves also get more reliable services and IoT users get lower-cost subscription tiers and options.

Finally, amidst all of the complexity around LPWAs, LTE-M is the most predictable solution. EC-GSM is simply not viable in too many markets as its spectral efficiency is low, the cost per bit is high, and it can’t simultaneously support IoT and higher-bandwidth users on the same system. And, while NB-IoT offers some attractive possibilities, there is still much uncertainty around what will ultimately be standardised and when.

For all of these reasons, the market momentum for LTE-M is large and growing, with a broad global ecosystem for LTE-M already emerging. While no one can predict the future with certainty, LTE-M is well positioned to emerge as the preferred LPWA technology for tomorrow’s IoT applications.

As a global leader in LTE and the IoT, we have the foundation and portfolio for new LTE-based LPWA solutions already in place. We are working closely with ecosystem partners and mobile operators worldwide to facilitate the finalisation of the LTE-M standard and accelerate its introduction to global markets. We can provide the design assistance, technology expertise, and technology portfolio to help customers in any industry capitalise on LPWA technology to seize the IoT opportunity in the form that best suits their own strategies.

Olivier Beaujard, VP market development for Sierra Wireless has more than 20 years’ experience in the wireless industry and machine to machine markets and joined Sierra Wireless in 2009. Prior to this, Mr. Beaujard was with Wavecom where he was in charge of product marketing. He has held several marketing positions such as marketing director, corporate business development director, VP marketing and VP of business development.

Mr. Beaujard graduated from the National Polytechnic Institute of Grenoble (INPG – ENSERG) with an electronics and telecommunications engineer diploma. He also holds an MBA from ESSEC business school.

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