As promised in my blog post on the crucial role of IoT data and connectivity let’s explore some of the main connectivity options available today. We start with a first look at network communication solutions for IoT with an introduction to LPWAN.
While in several IoT applications we often use a mix of fixed-line technologies (e.g. Ethernet) and wireless technologies, wireless connectivity is the fastest growing category in general.
Wireless IoT network standards and protocols can be classified in the same way as ‘traditional’ wireless networks, depending on the range. The class of networks with the broadest range is WWAN, short for Wireless Wide Area Networks as you can see in the image below.
In that class we find LPWA networks or LPWANs. LPWAN stands for low power wide area network and LPWA network technologies are suited for many wireless IoT connectivity needs. As the name indicates an LPWAN doesn’t just cover a wide area but also is a perfect fit for connected devices needing little power. LPWA network technologies further have low bit rate needs (for the sporadic sending of small data packets) at a low cost and are fit for indoor as well as outdoor usage.
LPWAN: the different types
LPWAN is not a single technology or standard. It covers many technologies and players that have the low power and wide area aspect in common.
LPWAN, in general, is the fastest growing type of wireless IoT connections in industrial applications. This is, among others, due to a range of new cellular LPWA technologies that have been recently standardized.
With several types of LPWA network technologies it isn’t always easy to know when to select what. In follow-up blog posts I will diver deeper into each one of them, referring to the use cases and the technological aspects with the OSI model in mind.
There are two types of LPWAN technologies and protocols.
- The first type, which exists the longest, uses the so-called unlicensed band (as Wi-Fi, for instance, does). In other words: they are non-cellular technologies. There are several providers with entirely different business models and ecosystem approaches. The best-known are the LoRa Alliance (with LoRa and LoRaWAN) and Sigfox. Others are Ingenu and Weightless.
- The second type or category, which is more recent, are the mentioned cellular LPWA standards. These are standardized by the 3GPP and use the licensed spectrum of mobile operators who often offer at least one of them, often in combination with a non-cellular offering. There are three cellular LPWAN standards: LTE-M, NB-IoT and EC-GSM-IoT.
The growing popularity of LPWAN
All IoT applications, certainly when factoring in geographical differences, are different and thus have different requirements.
Several LPWAN options will continue to exist for quite some time since they are complementary. Although cellular LPWAN solutions are being rolled out it is still relatively early and you might want to check the roadmap of the operator.
According to LPWAN connections research, by 2023 these non-cellular LPWA technologies will account for 55 percent of all connections globally, leaving 45 percent for the non-cellular players which today by far dominate.
As interoperability is essential as mentioned in my blog post on IoT data and connectivity, it’s important to select the proper platforms and devices that support the LPWAN connectivity options you need today and in the future.
Although LPWAN is far from new it is only really becoming more popular now. This is related with:
- The advent of the mentioned cellular LPWAN standards on the road towards 5G.
- The broader availability, enhanced performance and new possibilities of non-cellular LPWAN protocols whereby more use cases become possible.
- The fact that mobile operators are defining their strategies for the future and come with formulas that include rapid deployment possibilities and offer choice.
- The expansion of the crucial ecosystems of partners which providers need and customers want.
- The increase of cable companies that bring non-cellular LPWAN options to markets where these traditionally were less present or strong.
- The fact that more organizations start leveraging the IoT and that LPWAN covers many needs across many IoT use cases such as smart buildings, smart city applications, smart agriculture, logistics, smart home applications, asset tracking, smart meters and more.
How to choose?
There are several aspects to consider when selecting a LPWA network technology/partners. On top of the availability of the options in your region (whereby providers work towards cross-region availability and interoperability) and the existence of a local ecosystems these are essentially driven by your current and future goals.
Other considerations include how critical the application is, the needed throughput, the precise data transmission needs and number of messages you need a gateway to handle, the spectrum usage, network redundancy, the ‘openness’ of the standard and ecosystem, cell capacity, power efficiency, penetration capacities of the network in specific conditions (e.g. in buildings and in special facilities or outdoor conditions), the ways devices are powered and the potential usage of other connectivity solutions in your project.
Most of all it’s important to ask advice to reliable partners, picking the best solution for your use cases and goals and considering the specifications and services of the LPWA network technology you consider.
On a use case level, according to the previously mentioned research smart meter applications and asset tracking account for the majority of LPWAN connections and will continue to until at least 2023.
In the future blog posts where I will cover several approaches I will provide more information on the business model, ecosystems and technologies of various options to help you select.