Operators place LPWA bets

27 FEB 2017

Vodafone Group’s chief engineer, Luke Ibbetson, said previous doubts and concerns about the cellular industry’s role in low power wide area (LPWA) networks have been allayed thanks to the progress made in terms of standards, pilots and commercial launches during the past 12 months.

Speaking during the GSMA Mobile IoT Summit, Ibbetson — who is also the chair of the NB-IoT Forum — hailed the fact that “we now have a standard” for narrowband IoT (NB-IoT), which is one of the three LPWA network technologies specified by 3GPP designed to support a burgeoning range of IoT use cases with a focus on vertical sector requirements.

“It wasn’t for the faint hearted, bringing this to life,” he said, also emphasising that “we’re not declaring job done”: more work is required on matters such as roaming and security, for example.

Although Graham Trickey, head of the Connected Living Programme at the GSMA, said “there is still fragmentation, and this has hampered growth”, he welcomed the focus on NB-IoT, LTE-M (LTE Cat M1 or eMTC) and EC-GSM-IoT as “real standards”, and said mobile IoT is now “ready to launch”.

While vendors and chipmakers say they plan to support all three mobile IoT standards, operators are taking somewhat different approaches, with some focusing on just one and others opting for multiple solutions to support the “low end” of data needs.

Orange, for example, announced at MWC2017 that it planned to deploy LTE-M on its 4G networks in Belgium and Spain this year, with the rest of Europe to follow. However, the operator has also deployed non-3GPP technology LoRa in France, and also intends to use EC-GSM-IoT in Africa.

Furthermore, it has not ruled out NB-IoT: “NB-IoT is one of the technologies we will test and evaluate alongside the others, also including EC-GSM. We believe that it is likely that to address the entire spectrum of IoT services, operators will eventually be required to deploy multiple solutions,” an Orange spokesperson told Mobile World Daily.

Vodafone Group, meanwhile, has been an extremely vocal supporter of NB-IoT and has already commercially launched services in Spain, with more launches planned this year.

AT&T plans to “blanket the US and Mexico” with LTE-M, according to Cameron Coursey, VP of product development. “LTE-M is the future for us, but I applaud the whole mobile IoT market,” Coursey added.

China Mobile intends to deploy both LTE-M and NB-IoT. Xiao Shanpeng, deputy direct at China Mobile Research Institute (CMRI), said “facilitating verticals” will be key to the success of the LPWA IoT market, but said neither technology could support the various requirements of different vertical sectors on its own.

He called for more support from the vendor community to close the “product maturity gap” for both NB-IoT and LTE-M.

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