Expert predictions for the expansion of the Internet of Things (IoT) market and the impact these technologies will have on our lives have produced projections of billions of connected things, trillions of dollars in anticipated global GDP growth and hundreds of billions in incremental revenue for organisations. And, as we enter 2018, these predictions grow ever bolder, with Gartner predicting that IoT will be in everything by 2020, with IoT technology in 95% of electronics for new product designs
Cellular solutions have long dominated large-scale device deployments for the IoT, offering the market scalability, global reach and high bandwidth capabilities. However, for the vast majority of industrial IoT applications, low cost and low power connectivity is essential to the viability of these deployments – hence the industry’s excitement over low power wide area (LPWA) networks.
LPWA is therefore likely to significantly impact the growth of IoT deployments and future innovation, but the reality of delivering LPWA applications at scale, in today’s market, is still severely limited.
LPWA connectivity – what are the trade-offs?
IoT and the focus on the internet is counterintuitive at an operational level, because it is not the first technology decision enterprises are considering for their industrial IoT (IIoT) deployments. A decision maker has to consider the connected device first. The connected device and its purpose dictates every other decision which needs to be made regarding the use of connected technology to improve business efficiencies, establish new revenues – or both.
Depending on what your connected device does, massively impacts your choice of connectivity to the internet.
If you are developing a product which transmits sensor data back through your cloud, where perhaps you add value through analytics and proactive business intelligence, you don’t want to limit your market reach by tethering your device to geographically challenged internet technology.
For example, if you manufacture smart meters and you want to expand your business to a global market, it wouldn’t make sense to only connect your thing to the SigFox network, where your market is limited to specific geographic areas of only approximately 32 countries in which SigFox operates. Similarly, you may not want to limit connectivity to just narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) or LTE-Cat1M, as this will again limit your business reach to a currently constrained footprint.
With the current state of the LPWA market, the gains an enterprise can make through using these technologies in lowering total cost of ownership and extending battery life of their device are lost because of the trade-off on coverage, mobility and performance, or they suffer a big increase in management complexity and cost by deploying hybrid solutions.
However, an alternative solution that has all of the benefits of LPWA already exists today based on the capabilities of current GSM and successor networks.
If you are a connected things provider who is building a business with futureproof, global expansion in mind, it makes sense to choose connectivity based on how it benefits your business, both technically and commercially today and in the future.
For example, a heavy plant equipment hire company wants to be able to rent equipment to customers in any country in the world. To enhance the service it provides its customers, it wants to collect location and condition monitoring data from this equipment, for various reasons, via a connected monitor. In order to control the costs of its connected proposition, it ideally wants to source intelligent connectivity from a single supplier.
However, its business plan for global expansion will be limited if it is looking to work with one of the emerging LPWA network vendors. Licensed technology options, such as Cat1-M and narrowband IoT (NB-IoT), are only in trials in the majority of countries. Global adoption and interoperable roaming coverage across carriers will take many years to negotiate. Until then, it is impossible to develop products and solutions that are simple and easy to deploy worldwide.
Innovative unlicensed technology from the likes of Sigfox, Ingenu, LoRa and others requires national and international network rollout to be useful for such an application – something that will take time and introduces unknown reliability factors.
However, by using the globally-available GSM network, Thingstream is able to provide a low power, low cost solution, but with international coverage and mobility not available from any other LPWA player on the market today.
First to market vs. best to market?
On top of evaluating the best-fit LPWA connectivity for industrial IoT applications, manufacturers also need to consider the longterm viability of the technology they choose. The range of players in the LPWA space are all currently in the process of building their ecosystems and market dominance; with no clear leaders having emerged yet.
Current market fragmentation and instability pose a particular challenge for enterprises that cannot afford to wait for the market leaders to emerge. Decisions need to be made today on what LPWAN technology to invest in, when there is no clear picture of long-term viability of the technologies in play.
For industrial IoT innovators looking to take advantage of LPWA opportunities, it seems to be a case of choosing between being first to market or best to market. However, if we look at some of core module vendors, they are adopting a more future-proofed approach to enabling LPWA connectivity. New modems coming to market sport 2G/3G and LTE LPWAN connectivity within combined modules. This means a version of the product that uses the most globally available network footprint today, 2G/3G (GSM) and ensuring that you have an evolution plan to move to the new bearers as they become globally prolific via LTE – to include Cat-1M and NB-IoT. More importantly, this enables 2G or 3G to be utilised in coverage areas where LTE and its variants may not operate at all – thus providing the best global solution available for IoT. This observation from the core module vendors isn’t reflected by the glitzy hype we often see proliferated in media publications, but provides a valuable insight into how to address the long-term viability of your connected device.
It is clear that LPWA technology has an important role to play in providing low cost, low power connectivity for industrial IoT applications. However, the practicality of delivering viable solutions with many of the LPWA providers today severely limits deployments to very specific coverage areas in, for the most part, urbanised environments. Add to this the risk of developing a product to support LPWA connectivity that will not be industry-adopted in the long-term, further complicates this critical decision. Considering the profound impact of IoT across industry verticals, many enterprises may be taking a more cautious approach to choosing a LPWA provider, however, in this fast-paced market, this is increasingly becoming a choice between being a disruptor or being disrupted.