What 'Low Power, Wide Area' Means for IoT
This cellular technology will prove economically beneficial to enterprises needing to connect a massive number of IoT devices.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is here, and its growth has begun to impact enterprises and the networks they access. While connecting billions of IoT devices economically is a challenge, help is available in the form of Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) cellular technologies.
IoT Device Characteristics
In the machine-to-machine, or M2M, space, IoT devices need to be low cost -- otherwise the sheer quantity of these devices will strain the IT budget. In addition, the IoT devices need to consume very little power. Wired connections for inexpensive IoT devices will discourage their use. So they will be powered by batteries that do not need recharging or replacement for three to five years.
IoT devices may be standalone or embedded in other products such as vehicles or HVAC machinery. The devices likely will have wide geographic distribution, with the number of addressable devices in an enterprise reaching into the millions. The goal is to deliver connectivity that costs $5 or less per month (for 1,000 devices this is $5,000 per month for access charges) and operate for 10 years on a single AA battery.
Serving IoT Devices
The network architecture for wireless IoT devices should:
- Support long-range communications
- Operate with low power and long battery life
- Manage a large number of endpoints
- Support both low- and high-latency applications
- Deal with radio interference
- Deliver secure communications
- Operate with one-way and bidirectional communications
- Allow a range of applications, many of which have yet to be discovered
Introducing LPWA Technologies
LPWA technologies can provide an answer, and are available today from a number of market participants. LPWA, in fact, can be a competitive differentiator.
LPWA technologies need to co-exist with cellular mobile network and other short-range technologies. How this co-existence manifests itself will differ by the local cellular markets. The difference between the technology types include the radio spectrum in use (licensed vs. license exempt) and the network provider's local market strategies. As shown in the Machina Research data below, the firm forecasts M2M device connectivity will be divided among short-range (LPWA), cellular, wide-area fixed, metropolitan area network, and satellite networks.
The LoRa Alliance
The LoRa Alliance's mission is to produce a global LPWA standard that enables and stimulates development of IoT, M2M, industrial, and consumer applications. Alliance members work together to drive the worldwide adoption of LoRaWAN, a LPWA network protocol intended for use with wireless battery-operated IoT devices. LoRaWAN targets IoT devices such as secure bidirectional communication, mobility, and localization services. The standard provides interoperability among IoT devices without requiring complex local installations.
Operators usually configure LoRaWAN network architecture in a star-of-stars, or cluster, topology in which gateways support a transparent bridge relaying messages between IoT devices and a network server. Gateways connect to the network server through IP links.
IoT devices use single-hop wireless communications to one or more gateways. The communications is expected to be bidirectional. Multicast operation supports operation software upgrades or other mass distribution transmissions to reduce the communication time, thereby conserving cellular network time. (For more information, see this technical overview of LoRa and LoRaWAN, or watch this YouTube video on LPWA.)
What Will the Enterprise Encounter?
Enterprises will have a huge number of IoT devices to buy, maintain, and monitor. New applications will be necessary for the data center. The number of addresses for the IoT devices will explode.
Enterprises may employ cloud services to reduce the IT staff burden and capital expenses associated with large-scale IoT deployments. Note, however, that if a cloud provider aligns with a specific IoT device vendor, the LPWA solution may be proprietary and could result in vendor and cloud lock-in.
The cell network providers will have to add LPWA technologies to support IoT devices, and will need to price the access very low. One barrier is the in-building LPWA connection, as many cell services cannot penetrate inside buildings, especially basements. We may see LPWA signal boosters come on the market to solve this problem.
Finally, the enterprise will have a challenge determining the return on investment for the IoT device deployment. The payback period could easily be years. The justification may be related to keeping customers that could be lost to competitors.