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Low-power WANs overlooked for IoT connectivity, says Beecham

Beecham Research says machine-to-machine comms and the internet of things (IoT) will turn to low-power wide area networks (WANs) over mobile grids

Low-power wide area networks (LPWANs) will challenge the traditional mobile network standard for machine-to-machine (M2M) and internet of things (IoT) connectivity in the next five years, as the limitations of cellular networks begin to be exposed, according to a report from IoT and wearables specialists Beecham Research.

In the analyst house’s latest report – Low power wide area networks for IoT applications market report and forecast – Beecham forecast that LPWANs would provide just over a quarter of the total IoT connectivity market, with 345 million connections by 2020 – ending the near-monopoly held by mobile network owners.

With lower power requirements, longer range and lower cost than a mobile network, LPWANs are thought to enable a much wider range of M2M and IoT applications, which are currently constrained by budgets and distance from a power source.

David Parker, senior analyst at Beecham, compiled and wrote the report. He said LPWANs represented “the most dynamic and potentially game changing” development in the IoT to date.
“The lower speeds of LPWANs are the trade-off for longer range, offering networks optimised for machine connectivity with much lower deployment costs than traditional cellular networks,” said Parker.

“LPWANs will both compete and collaborate with cellular and other network technologies to stimulate market growth with more connectivity options for users."

The report investigated the increasing number of LPWAN technologies now available, assessing the likes of Sigfox, a France-based low power wireless developer, and member companies of the LoRa Alliance, an organisation dedicated to standardising LPWANs.

Most of the LPWAN systems currently on the market rely on the industrial, scientific and medical bands used for other short-range technologies such as ZigBee. But recent development work now means LPWANs can be established over these bands over much longer distances, potentially as far as 50km – big enough for the largest farms – in rural areas, and five to 10km in urban areas.

LPWANs can exploit TV white space spectrum – currently being investigated for a number of IoT applications in the UK – gaps in the VHF and UHF spectrum, which can offer connectivity over distances of 10km, and has superior in-building penetration compared with mobile networks.

“New entrants working in the ISM and TVWS bands are promoting overall market growth and providing a spur to action within the GSMA world,” said Parker.

“Developing standards for the cellular operating community is a slower process, but the emergence of LTE-M and Narrowband IoT (NB-IOT) will allow cellular operators to compete with these new entrants on a level playing field of range, battery life and costs.”

Big data beware

The report warned of the growing hype around big data applications on the IoT, where everything is discussed in terms of what Beecham termed the 3Vs – velocity, volume and variety.

Beecham CEO Robin Duke-Woolley said LPWANs would not really be appropriate for big data apps, and possibly not for anything that was real-time, interactive or immersive. He said it would be better suited for IoT devices that perform very limited monitoring tasks and rarely require connectivity.

“From a connectivity point of view, the market will move towards 4G-5G for satisfying big data IoT while, on the other side, LPWANs and equivalent networks will address low-data IoT requirement,” he said.

Duke-Woolley also injected a note of caution over what he termed “staggering predictions” of how many devices would end up connected on the IoT – some of which he branded unrealistic.

“The risk is that new and established companies build business plans based on these forecasts and run out of funding before they have a chance to become established and see their return on investment,” he pointed out.

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