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Licensed low-power cellular market gains high traction

With the current extensive deployment of 4G networks and continued expansion of 5G, licensed low-power IoT applications and use cases are set to take off

Research from Strategy Analytics predicts that despite a slow start outside China, the market for licensed low-power wide-area (LPWA) cellular connections will grow to almost 900 million connections by 2025, significantly outstripping unlicensed LPWA connections over the same period.

The study, IoT licensed low-power cellular connections by vertical, assessed the opportunities in the licensed LPWA market, covering low-power licensed spectrum internet of things (IoT) cellular connections through narrowband (NB) IoT and by LTE M across a number of vertical industries.

Establishing the power issue’s relevance, Strategy Analytics stressed that many IoT applications do not require high bandwidth or ultra-low latency to function effectively. For this reason, it said, 2G technologies still remained effective for a number of IoT applications.

Yet as the world pivots to 5G, low-power systems are also evolving to meet the needs of IoT. 4G LTE has evolved to support Cat 0 and Cat 1, but in 3GPP Release 13 standard, defined in 2016/2017, specific versions of LTE were defined that allowed for secure, low-power use of LTE for IoT applications, namely LTE M and NB IoT.

The analyst calculated that there were now more than 92 NB IoT and over 36 LTE M networks and the number is growing all the time, with multiple service providers and module OEMs supporting both technologies. With roaming issues effectively being resolved around NB IoT, the future appears positive, said Andrew Brown, executive director of enterprise and IoT research at Strategy Analytics.

“While NB IoT has emerged as the dominant technology, driven by huge infrastructure projects in China, strong in-building coverage, very low cost and long battery life, LTE M will continue to play an important role in applications with a significant downlink requirements and/or voice support, as well as FOTA [firmware over the air] support,” he said.

“As 2G and 3G networks are phased out, licensed low-power technologies operating on 4G and 5G networks will be pivotal in IoT deployments. NB IoT and Cat M will be covered by 5G and will naturally become the technology of choice for massive machine-type communications [mMTC] in 5G. 5G NR (New Radio) is designed to support diverse deployment models.

“It is likely that from the start of 5G NR, the 3GPP will allow LTE M and NB IoT transmissions to be placed directly into the 5G NR frequency band. This simply requires core network RAN support. With cellular networks already in place, we believe the opportunity for these technologies are extremely viable in the long term.”

A recent example of a typical use case for such low-power IoT technology has emerged with utility company SES Water inking a 10-year deal with Vodafone to provide IoT technology to revolutionise how water leaks are prevented and detected.

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