New Connectivity

A new connectivity standard for the IoT

| Insights

I recently attended the LoRa Alliance conference in London and got to see the latest and greatest in low-power wireless access (LWPA) and LoRa-enabled technologies. Never heard of LPWA or LoRa, and not sure why they matter?

In addition to sharing my perspective on what's to come in the IoT connectivity arena, I want to take a step back and discuss some important questions, such as: Why do we need a special way to connect the billions of smart devices expected in the coming years? What exactly is LPWA, and why should we care about LoRa? Why is a connectivity standard for the Internet of Things so important?

The importance of standards

First, let's discuss what a standard does. Have you ever noticed, when traveling between countries, how your mobile phone can connect? It connects whether you are in Nigeria, the Philippines or Canada. Yet, you cannot simply plug in your charger to a wall plug in each of these places without cumbersome adapters. Well, that is exactly why a standard is needed.

Standards also create a global market, enable massive economies of scale, drive down cost, and attract more investments and continued innovation. So, in order to arrive at the 50 bio devices connected, as touted by some industry commentators, we need a standard for the IoT.

In order to deliver on the expectations for connectivity ubiquity, coverage, battery life, OPEX and ease of provisioning for the IoT, current solutions do not suffice. At present, there are basically two connectivity standard camps: players supporting the licensed band and players supporting the unlicensed band. In simple terms, it is a bit like Wi-Fi vs 3G and 4G. One technology can be deployed by anybody anywhere (your Wi-Fi router at home or in the office), while the other is "owned" by a licensed operator who has paid a 10- or 20-year concession fee to a government-regulated entity to use a certain spectrum.

Why other IoT connectivity standards have failed

We have seen a range of unsuccessful attempts to create a new IoT connectivity standard from Bluetooth, DECT derivatives, ZigBee, UNB, Weightless and others. Most of them have failed due to a lack of industry ecosystem support, the technology's complexity and basic bad timing, but they have also failed due to the unclear end-user need. Who needs a connected toothbrush if it comes with a premium price and no intelligence or consumer value? Then there is, of course, Wi-Fi, GSM, 3G and LTE, which all are successful standards, but not for the gap that LoRa is now filling. In a previous post, I wrote about trade-offs between latency and bandwidth being the key determinants for applications, which makes this so significant.

Where LPWA fits into the IoT standard landscape

LPWA covers a set of technologies, such as weightless, ultra-narrow-band (UNB) technology, random-phase multiple-access (RPMA), LoRa, narrowband IoT (NB-IoT), long-term evolution for machines (LTE-M) and others that, in principle, should offer the features required for rapid mass adoption of IoT deployment.

It is starting to look like LoRa is gaining traction for a variety of use cases serving the IoT within the unlicensed spectrum. LoRa is the alternative IoT connectivity network to traditional licensed spectrum solutions such as NB-IoT and LTE-M. Buying expensive licenses to run your own network is unnecessary, as LoRa operates in frequency bands that are "unlicensed." This enables practically anybody to set up a few gateways (that are type-approved, of course), switch them on and wirelessly connect end devices.