IoT: Are we likely to witness a war of the networks?

With some 8 billion connected devices - one for every person on the planet - currently in use, the IoT is undoubtedly the industrial boom of the year, with smart electricity meters, security cameras and temperature sensors among the most popular of devices.

It is estimated that there will be some 20 billion of these accessories in use by 2020. Various protocols involving cellular and wireless networks and dedicated networks such as Sigfox and LoRa are currently used to enable such devices to communicate with one another, but are these Low-Power Wide-Area (LPWA) networks just a temporary solution?

Should priority be given to 4G, or could 5G be the future of the IoT? Here we offer a brief overview of the technologies available and what they mean.

Networks devoted to the IoT: Low-Power Wide-Area (LPWA) network

Cellular infrastructures are no good for the majority of devices such as terminals and sensors, which is why easy-to-use low-consumption long-distance networks built especially for connected devices are proving increasingly popular.

Sigfox

Sigfox was the first to enter the market with a technology based on the ultra-narrow-band radio frequency. The dedicated network, based on the use of open frequencies, can be used to send short messages from one device to another (no more than 12 characters and 140 messages a day)
with a consumption level a thousand times less than that of a SIM card, allowing devices to communicate wherever there is network coverage, with no roaming.

This protocol does, however, require the use of relay masts in order to work. It is currently in operation in nearly 30 countries around the world but does not fully cover all of the countries in question. The company, which has great ambitions in terms of its development, has received a great deal of media coverage and benefited from a number of fundraising campaigns amounting to millions of euros.

Sigfox aims to establish global network coverage using both terrestrial (868 and 915 MHz) and satellite frequency bands (Mustang programme in conjunction with Airbus currently under way). The French company has benefited from a strong media presence and the support of various players such as Samsung, Air Liquide, Telefónica and Engie but does not, however, have the monopoly over future IoT networks.

LoRa

The LoRa alliance emerged 2 years after its main rival Sigfox but is also based on radio frequency, operating within Chirp Spread Spectrum-type ISM frequency bands (868 Mhz). The LoRaWan network differs in that it has a faster transmission speed than Sigfox (100kbits/s as opposed to 300 bits/s), with messages of up to 240 octets.

The LoRa alliance has also won widespread support from companies such as Cisco, IBM, KPN and Bouygues Telecom and is on track to catch up with Sigfox in terms of the number of countries in which it operates, although its coverage is less extensive. The main benefit that it offers is the ability to use private networks in managed mode.

Furthermore, the LoRaWan network offers a certain degree of flexibility in that it operates based on 3 different categories of communication - A, B and C - designed to meet 3 different needs. Category A provides the minimum communication conditions required by all devices whilst the other categories also offer a higher bandwidth and bidirectional communication.

LTE M and NB-IoT: augmented 4G

Operators have realised that LPWA networks work well alongside the cellular network. Unlike the Sigfox and LoRa networks, the LTE M and later NB-IoT protocols specified by the 3GPP consortium (and based on the 4G network) offer a proprietary frequency band, the emphasis here being on real-time rather than sporadic communication.

Only operators who are already in possession of an LTE licence may adopt this protocol. It is also important to point out that the task of standardisation is still on-going, which is preventing them from penetrating as quickly as they otherwise might.

In adopting the LTE M protocol, Orange and a number of major global operators have adopted a joint approach that can be directly applied to the existing cellular infrastructure at a lower cost. This technology is quick to implement where their existing customers are concerned and has been treated as a trial for the native integration of the IoT with 5G.

5G: taking the IoT by storm

The heralded arrival of the 5G technology in 2020 will include a native IoT component. 5G has, of course, been at the centre of attention since the last World Mobile Congress in Barcelona and must support the general public in the new applications that connected devices now offer, notably including real-time communications, low latency and a bandwidth with the ability to carry video.

Initial tests have already been performed in the vehicle-to-vehicle field, with plans to use 5G to meet temporary needs to broadcast video at major events such as the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup also in the pipeline. That said, the various tests performed have so far been limited to targeted business needs.

Which technology is the safest bet?

Whilst the various cellular networks could be considered competitors whose main sources of differentiation are price and coverage, the picture is very different where IoT networks are concerned.

Indeed, the various networks mentioned here are complementary to one another and should be chosen based on the intended purpose.

The key points to consider are as follows:

  • volume of data by device
  • energy efficiency of devices
  • level of bidirectionality
  • real time and latency
  • coverage and roaming
  • public or private network
  • open or proprietary frequency

If you wish to install sensors (temperature, humidity, air quality, etc.) with a long battery life, for example, the Sigfox network will be the best option.

If you need to install sensors in a specific area as part of a network that you will operate yourself, to gauge fuel levels, for example, or to locate vehicles, then the LoRaWan network should meet your needs.

Are you concerned about open frequency solutions and would you prefer to use an operator-managed network on a proprietary frequency? Or maybe you’re looking for real-time interaction?

If the answer to either of these questions is ‘yes’, then NB IoT is likely to be the best solution.
Ultimately, if your business can wait until the next decade to make the transition to the IoT or the range of networks currently available fail to meet your needs, then 5G will undoubtedly be your best bet.

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