LIVE FROM LPWA WORLD 2018, LONDON: Vodafone Group is on an expansion drive for its low power wide area (LPWA) IoT services, with initial networks based on the NB-IoT flavour of LPWA technology set for growth, complemented by LTE-M rollouts.

Adam Armer, IoT global business development and innovation manager at the operator (pictured), said NB-IoT is now live in nine markets and Vodafone aims to cover all its 4G masts worldwide by 2020.

Vodafone has deployed nationwide networks in Republic of Ireland, Czech Republic and the Netherlands, but the picture will “significantly change” by the end of the year: “We are looking for 90 per cent in Germany and 100 per cent in Spain. In the UK it will be similar. It is an expanding process,” Armer noted.

He also explained the company’s reasoning behind plans to deploy LTE-M, which he said will be “added into our service”, although specific details were not revealed.

“LTE-M is critical for 5G. We saw more potential in NB-IoT because of its far reach and increased battery life,” he said. “We can also address a number of LTE-M applications with our 2G network which we will keep activated until at least 2025 in most markets. But, there is a clear need for LTE-M and it will be added into key markets. It’s part of the natural evolution.”

NB-IoT and LTE-M are two standardised LPWA technologies, competing with unlicensed offerings from the likes of Sigfox and LoRa. Indeed, Armer acknowledged unlicensed technologies were useful for certain applications,and had been “tactically deployed by operators up to this point”.

He said Vodafone would, however, not follow, instead suggesting that the benefits of a standardised 3GPP-based technology (eg security) make NB-IoT and LTE-M more widely appealing.

In June 2017 Mobile World Live reported Vodafone had tested LTE-M and reports later in the year said Vodafone Netherlands would launch the technology by the end of June 2018. LTE-M offers higher data throughput and voice capability, compared to NB-IoT.

Business case warning
Meanwhile Armer also used his presentation to urge operators to look at providing IoT solutions beyond connectivity to generate cash, but warned there will be no business around the technology if it becomes a “revenue driving exercise”.

Armer said Vodafone does not believe IoT was about the “thing”, but it is more about implementing changes in lives, businesses and ensuring there is an overall impact of connecting such solutions.

LPWA services, he believes, should be thought of differently to operators’ traditional business.

“We have a part of the value chain that is traditionally connectivity, and within the higher bandwidth technologies this is typically 12 per cent to 13 per cent of the value chain of that solution. But, when we go down to LPWA that margin is closer to 6 per cent to 7 per cent. That’s a reduction and we have to look at how to supplement the value we bring by providing higher-value services beyond connectivity or going down the value chain.”

The Vodafone executive added LPWA provided operators an opportunity to “assist” smaller companies by offering solutions and playing a background role.

“LPWA gives us the potential to connect millions and billions of people and devices, but unless we do it in a meaningful way, through health, education, there is no IoT business of any use and it becomes a revenue driving exercise,” he said.