Three flavors of IoT network technology

By Bruno Mommens (Delaware Consulting)


28/10/2016 14:54:47

Are you up for a little Internet of Things (IoT) quiz? Here we go. What is the difference between LoRa and Sigfox? What does NB-IoT stand for? And how exactly is IoT different from M2M integration (Machine-to-Machine)? Eternal fame and glory for those who know all three answers, but in reality many companies are still puzzled as to which IoT network best fits their needs. In the past few years several networks that allow the interconnectivity of devices have come to light, each with its own bandwidth, hardware support, power consumption and coverage. 

For small data packages only

The rise of these networks – complementary to existing mobile technologies such as WiFi, Bluetooth, 3/4G and GPRS – is actually a logical evolution. In all but a few IoT applications it would not make any sense to equip devices with a SIM card and a mobile data subscription. The amount of data these devices send out in IoT applications is negligible compared with the average consumer’s mobile data consumption. 
These new low-power wide area network devices (LPWAN) consume far less energy, are much cheaper and offer wider coverage than the traditional telecom networks. Therefore an entire country can be covered with a limited number of base stations. The key benefit of LPWANs  is that they enable battery powered devices to send out data for years, thanks to their low power transmission feature. They are ideal to support applications such as asset tracking, smart metering, industrial control, smart agriculture, smart cities, etc. Furthermore, they allow secure and bidirectional communication, enabling for example the definition of thresholds that trigger alerts when they are exceeded. 

Parallel networks

The three main networks that are at play at this time are LoRa (Long Range, Low Power ), Sigfox and NB-IoT (Narrowband IoT). LoRa and Sigfox are the most alike. They are both LPWANs, they currently both use unlicensed radio band (no SIM card needed) and they both offer secure and bidirectional communication, although Sigfox appears to be slightly stronger in the bidirectional field. 

What makes them different are the possible downsides. LoRa – rolled out in Belgium by Proximus – is part of an alliance that focuses predominantly on Europe and has a national scope. So, when your device crosses the border, you’ll need another contract with a national telecom operator. Sigfox is rolling out its network worldwide and has partnered with Engie in Belgium. A disadvantage of their business model is that all agreements have to be made exclusively with Sigfox. The French company owns all the technology—from the backend data and cloud server to the endpoints software. 

One challenge they both share is the ability to provide for software updates on the devices. Since they both make use of low bandwidths – from 865 to 868 MHz –, they were designed for sending small data packages. That forces users, for now at least, to equip their devices with GPRS or 3G technology to allow regular software updates. 

A market taking shape

Meanwhile yet another player is appearing on the horizon. Huawei and Vodafone are developing a new NB-IoT (Narrowband IoT) technology that is being tested in pilot projects around the world. There is still quite some uncertainty as to exactly how the network will be deployed, but it seems as if it will be a licensed-spectrum technology that is able to deliver deep indoor penetration even in areas where mobile reception is poor. A new standard and further roll-out are expected to follow next year and that may progress rapidly since the network can be deployed using the existing mobile phone masts. In Belgium, Orange will operate NB-IoT.

Technological evolution in IoT networks is accelerating rapidly. Even if a big chunk of it is still in an immature phase, it is time to get up to speed with the immense potential offered by these evolutions and to get started with fast prototyping to explore the opportunities. Will NB-IoT be a catalyst for the IoT industry? Or does your IoT application benefit more from LoRa or Sigfox? Many questions remain unanswered, but a lot is available already to prepare the next step in your IoT journey. Happy testing – and don’t hesitate to share your thoughts and insights! We’ll do the same.