Comparing LPWAN options for IoT

At TM Forum’s Monetizing IoE InFocus event (October 17-18, Amsterdam, Netherlands), Pierpaolo Marchese, Head of Standard Coordination and Industry Influencing, Telecom Italia, will take part in a panel discussion entitled Making Sense of the IoE Connectivity Spaghetti – LPWAN & 5G. Here, he compares low-power wide area network (LPWAN) options.

A successful Internet of Things (IoT) player will have to understand the network opportunities out there because, after all, forecasts about IoT growth are explosive – from 15.4 billion devices in 2015, to 30.7 billion in 2020, and 75.4 billion devices in 2025, according to market intelligence firm IHS. What might work for connecting devices across offices will likely not be appropriate for connecting devices across cities, and what was crucial to the market yesterday may not be the fast and far-reaching networks of today.

Beyond GSM

GSM has been around for decades, so networks are already in place and widespread, and it is very low cost. It’s unsurprising therefore that GSM is often viewed as the go-to for IoT connectivity. It does, however, come with severe performance limitations, like the coverage not extending far enough and the fast-diminishing battery life. What’s more, it’s not future-proof; many GSM licenses worldwide are due to expire imminently and we don’t quite know what the future holds for them – perhaps renewal, or maybe spectrum auctions all over again. They could be re-licensed for other uses.

This brings us to an alternative, LPWAN, which can be implemented as a proprietary technology using unlicensed spectrum or a standards-based technology using licensed spectrum.

Proprietary LPWAN

Wireless providers like SigFox and LoRa are the most relevant players in this category. Sigfox uses unlicensed  spectrum (industrial, scientific and medical (ISM) radio bands) to carry the small amounts of data required for IoT and is generally used for ‘upload only’ scenarios. LoRa, also using unlicensed spectrum, delivers national networks of IoT devices, with secure communications. LoRa also transmits over large distances at low data rates ranging from 0.3 to 50kbps.

Both technologies are deployable with proprietary hardware and software equipment, and provide optimized device battery life. This is along with the expected benefits from the use of unlicensed spectrum, although this brings coexistence issues with other radio systems


3GPP standards-based options include mainly narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) and LTE for machines (LTE-M). LTE-M provides higher throughput and full mobility, the kind necessary in fleet management, tracking and intelligent devices. NB-IoT is more so addressing many, many devices with limited throughput and mobility. The initial interest in NB-IoT has veered towards smart metering (gas, electricity, water) and smart cities, as devices for these tend to be static with a low throughput. They’re also often installed in deep indoor scenarios and so benefit from NB-IoT coverage enhancement, replacing old GSM solutions.

In the next decade, 3GPP technologies will evolve to 5G massive machine type communication (MMTC) devices. NB-IoT and LTE-M will be the basis for MMTC applications in 5G, leading to a new radio (NR) for IoT, bringing new levels of latency, reliability and security with enhanced mobile broadband.

TIM (Telecom Italia’s telephony and internet brand) has decided, so far, to bet on 3GPP technology only – as this technology matures, a move to an LTE-based solution is considered as more future proof.

Network deployment and chipset availability

Unlicensed LPWAN:

  • Chipsets for Lora and Sigfox devices are available now, but from a single chipset vendor.
  • Installations will require a dedicated network deployment on new or existing towers.

NB-IoT and LTE-M:

  • Chipsets and modules are now commercially available from the first suppliers and don’t require additional network platforms; others from major vendors will follow.
  • IoT module costs are expected to fall particularly when vendors are be able to fully integrate all needed components (e.g. power amplifier) in system on a chip (SoC) products.
  • LTE solutions and future 5G solutions will have maximum scalability per kilometers squared, various bit rates and communication patterns.
  • LTE based solutions allow devices to receive firmware over the air (FOTA) updates. This will ease long-life device updates, such as smart meters.

Quality of service and security

The 3GPP solutions can guarantee quality of service (QoS) in given frequencies and bands. For the unlicensed propositions, this QoS is harder to guarantee as there will be other systems operating on the same unlicensed frequencies.

The 3GPP-derived solutions will leverage the high levels of security traditionally coming from mobile networks, especially authentication and security of communication protocols. This is particularly important following recent attacks proving the vulnerability of many IoT devices. The availability of eSIM and, in the future, iUICC (both are SIMs enabling smart services) will ease device configuration and subscription management.

From technology to market introduction

Cellular IoT networks (such as GSM), are of course not obsolete, and operators can offer multiple services, for multiple market needs. However, some IoT services, for instance in automotive or wearables, require connected-mode mobility handling and higher downlink/uplink throughput, close to 1mbps. To address those IoT services, firms should consider LTE-M, and consistently leverage LTE-advanced network and its evolution towards 5G. NB-IoT and LTE-M could, in fact, coexist for different types of services.

Network management is also a consideration. For example, TIM has striven to manage complexities by launching an ‘IoT Open Lab’ in Turin in November 2016. We’re working towards establishing a pre-commercial bridge between customers, developers, device vendors and the TIM IoT network.

In the future, with all the billions of devices, it is difficult to imagine that a single technology will emerge. But, NB-IoT and LTE-M are closing the price gap in devices with unlicensed technologies and will definitely be effective for total cost of ownership and performance in coverage, low bandwidth usage, security and quality management. Indeed, their deployment will be central in the developing IoT market.

See the full Monetizing IoE InFocus 2017 agenda and register now.


About The Author

Head of Standard Coordination and Industry Influencing - Telecom Italia

With almost 30 years of activity in Telecommunications, Pierpaolo is responsible for Standard Coordination and Industry Influencing (in TIM Technology, Innovation). After his initial experience in CSELT, the former R&D Centre of Telecom Italia, he has covered various management responsibilities in Planning and Network to set teams and launch innovation projects in the area of Mobile and Network Services, as Head of Service Platform Innovation , Program and Vendor Management, Vertical Markets Solutions, SVP for R&D Governance and Network Transformation. He was previously in the board of OMTP (then merged in WAC) and is now in the board of OPNFV. He holds BE/ME degrees in electronic engineering from Politecnico of Turin.

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