January 21, 2016 — A funny thing happened at the International Consumer Electronics Show this year. A connectivity conference broke out. Not that connectivity wasn’t a factor in the past, but this year was a breakthrough, as the Boston Globe noted “CES Takes Connectivity to a New Level.” Of the 20,000 new products that debuted, many have an Internet address and they will need wireless to get to the Internet.
For example, Ericsson showed off a number of use cases include connected scooters/bikes, smart metering and grid management, water quality monitoring, smart agriculture and wearables.
Most importantly, Ericsson gave a shot in the arm to the use of existing cellular networks for low-power wide-area networking (LPWAN), announcing software enhancements that will use LTE as the platform for Internet of Things (IoT) communications.
Ericsson Networks Software 17A supports the new low-complexity IoT device category known as Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT), which cuts device costs up to 90 percent, improves battery life to more than 10 years and improves coverage by 20 dB. These improvements will leverage current LTE infrastructure to deliver IoT applications and will compete with many of the unlicensed IoT technologies already on the market.
Using a dedicated carrier (200 kHz) deployed in-band of LTE, NB-IoT can support up to 200,000 connections, which can be scaled up to millions of IoT connections per cell site.
NB-IoT Joins Family of Cellular IoT Solutions
NB-IoT is the latest technology solution aimed at transforming the LTE protocol to support IoT communications in addition to broadband signals. The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) announced its intention to create an NB-IoT standard last fall.
The technology complements the previously announced LTE Machine-type Communication (LTE-M) and the Extended Coverage GSM (EC-GSM). All three address the diversity of LPWA IoT use case requirements. EC-GSM serves all GSM markets; LTE-M supports wearables, location-based child-tracker services, and eHealth health care apps; NB-IoT covers ultra-low-end IoT applications with greater cost and coverage advantages than LTE-M.
Ericsson, Verizon Plan Tests of IoT Devices
Ericsson and Verizon, who have engaged in IoT trials since 2014, announced joint activities to further develop and deploy cellular LPWA networking for IoT applications.
By leveraging its existing network infrastructure, Verizon believes it will be faster to market with new IoT applications. Ericsson and Verizon will work with ecosystem partners to accelerate the pace of commercialization of advanced IoT solutions, with joint trials in 2&016.
AT&T On Board with IoT
AT&T announced alliances with Cisco, Deloitte, Ericsson, GE, IBM, Intel, and Qualcomm Technologies to to develop smart cities through IoT with initial spotlights on cities and universities that include Atlanta, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Chicago and Dallas.
The carrier has also announced wireless connectivity for several products, including the YOFiMeter Connected Glucose Meter, the Ford Escape and Mahindra GenZe electric scooter.
In the future, AT&T plans to meld its connected car with Digital Life connected home, so that a homeowner’s car will automatically open the garage door, turn on the house lights, unlock the door, turn off the alarm and set the thermostat upon entering the driveway.
Cellular will Compete With Unlicensed LPWAN IoT Networks
There are already several unlicensed low-power wide area network (LPWAN-U) technologies designed to carry M2M communications, including Weightless SIG (M2Comm, Nwave), LoRaWAN (LinkLabs, Fybr, MultiTech, Senetco, KerLink), Sigfox and Ingenu. This begs the question: where does the Ericsson announcement and other IoT-optimized cellular technologies leave the networks designed specifically for M2M communications?
“Are LPWANs using unlicensed radio spectrum no longer needed?” Bailey said. “The clear answer is ‘No, they are needed’ and in fact LPWAN-U is yet to have its heyday!”
Considering the time it takes to develop a standard, go through trials and then deployment, mobile operators are three to four years away from having LPWAN in licensed spectrum, according to Matthew Bailey, an International IoT advisor.
“The cellular industry is reacting to the threat that the LPWAN-U represents to its bottom line. The low barriers to entry of LPWAN-U creates tremendous competition for the mobile operators.” The smart operators are going to enter LP-WAN using unlicensed spectrum, he added.
Last September, 3GPP decided to develop a standard for narrowband IoT, which could use spectrum within a normal LTE carrier, or in a LTE carrier’s guard-band, or standalone network for deployments in dedicated spectrum.
Luke D’Arcy, senior director, global semiconductor and module partners, for SIGFOX, said there is a lot of competition among OEMs to have their technology named the 3GPP standard for licensed spectrum.
“Cat-0, LTE-M, CIOT, NB-IoT: there seems to be a new acronym every week! It will probably take a few years to sort everything out and get the networks deployed,” D’Arcy said. SIGFOX’s IoT technology is complementary to cellular, because of differences in bandwidth and cost, he added.
“SIGFOX cannot deliver that same kind of bandwidth as LTE. In applications where bandwidth is important customers will choose LTE. In applications where cost and power consumption are the dominant concerns they will choose SIGFOX,” he said. “Lower bandwidth makes it possible for SIGFOX radios to be much lower cost and lower power. For example a SIGFOX radio costs about $2 in volume, today, compared with $15 – $50 for LTE.”
Along with the development of a standard, LPWAN-U is also looking for a spectrum home. In a blog post this week, Michael Vedomske, Ingenu, called for a public network dedicated to proprietary Unlicensed LPWAN technology.
“IoT must be connected by a ubiquitous wireless service dedicated to machines (much like cellular networks are used today for human driven voice/data connections). Both traditional cellular and LPWAN-U are proposed public network solutions to IoT connectivity,” he wrote.
Before LPWAN-U gets spectrum, it needs to learn how to coexist on those frequencies, according to Bailey. While there are examples in many nations of LPWAN-U deployment trials working reliably, concurrently, there is no solid proof that all the protocols will all be able to share spectrum, he added.
“If the LPWAN-U community agreed on one set of LPWAN-U standards, co-existence would be straightforward but this is not the case, yet, he said. “Industry leaders need to come together to do the research to make sure that our protocols play well together and these networks will coexist.”
For spectrum, most LPWAN-U businesses are currently focusing on the 2.45 GHz industrial scientific and medical (ISM) band as a home for their IoT applications.