About that industry agreement on LPWA standardisation and coordination…

Has the industry just agreed to new standards for LPWA IoT in licensed spectrum? Or is the message getting confused?

On Thursday last week the GSMA published a press release. The first sentence was: “The GSMA today announced that the mobile industry has agreed on technology standards for the emerging Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) market and these standards have been accepted by 3GPP.

On the face of it – that’s quite an interesting statement, given that some operators have been calling for the industry to get a shift on in specifying and bringing to market standardised technologies for LPWA access in licensed technologies.

So… GSMA announced that… industry agreed… accepted by 3GPP. A fair reading of that would assume that 1. There is an announcement of something new having happened. 2. That the something new is an industry agreement 3. That 3GPP had accepted the outcome of that agreement.

And yet it appears 1. The announcement refers to an agreement by those members of the GSMA’s own Mobile IoT Initiative* (26 members) to get their efforts behind three technology standards currently being defined by 3GPP into R13. 2. The 3GPP hasn’t (as far as I understand) accepted anything as agreed by “the industry”. In fact the reverse is true – the industry (Mobile IoT initiative in this case) has adopted 3GPP standards. How, indeed, could the 3GPP “accept” its own standards.

This is perhaps not a particularly important distinction to the end game of defining LPWA IoT services for operation in licensed spectrum, but it’s worth seeing why the GSMA seems keen in this instance to highlight industry coordination and its own role in that.

BACKGROUND

There’s been a fascinating battle this year in wireless IoT – specifically for the section of it now known as Low Power Wide Area (LPWA).

There have been a series of technical proposals for network technology capable of supporting the connection of very long battery life devices that must operate across a wide area, but at low power.

These have had varying degrees of publicity – from the quite a lot (SigFox and LoRa) to the rather less (Weightless-N and, now, Weightless-P).

But what they did do was put the wind up traditional vendors of cellular kit and those operators who would prefer to see M2M and wireless IoT devices remain in licensed spectrum – more than likely with a SIM of some sort in there. The main reason for this is that some fairly major Tier One operators committed to trials and some commercial rollouts of non-cellular networks to support these LPWA use cases. Orange France is a case in point, but there were others too.

That meant that those parties more wedded to the licensed spectrum side of the fence knew they had to get a move on and get some coordinated tech into the market. So it was in August that the GSMA announced it was launching a Mobile IoT initiative, with a view to speeding up the go-to-market of technologies for LPWA in licensed spectrum. Also important: doing so ensures technologies remain interoperable, where possible.

Efforts, by the way, were already under way within 3GPP – giving the GSMA something to coordinate its efforts around. A study item (CIoT_EC_GSM) on extending 2G coverage for MTC had been opened up back in May 2014. LTE-MTC was also well under way. But there was a hold up in defining specs for narrow band communications in LTE. To over-simplify, there had been two competing proposals – with the formation of two camps centred around Huawei on one side with Ericsson and Nokia Networks on the other.

Then in September the “schism” within the 3GPP community was brokered into support for one unified standard specification for LPWA IoT within LTE.

Shortly after that, led by Vodafone, a selection of operators formed a NB-IoT Forum to make sure that the standard the 3GPP had agreed in – NB-IoT – got to market as quickly as possible. There would be trials and an open lab approach to development. The Forum quickly had 27 members.

Last week, in that same release, the GSMA said that the NB-IoT Forum would be part of the Mobile IoT initiative. That keeps things together under one roof.

It also announced that the “industry” had agreed upon standards that had then been accepted by 3GPP. And that was the press release.

AGREEMENT AND ENCOURAGEMENT

Notably, the day before that 17 December press release there was an article, bylined to Shane Rooney at the GSMA, carried on the 3GPP site that carried a slightly different emphsasis. In this article, Rooney wrote (our italics): “We encourage 3GPP to agree three common and complementary licensed standards that will cover all LPWA use cases. These are Narrow Band IoT, Extended Coverage GPRS and LTE Machine Type Communication in Release 13.

“The timing of Release 13 has motivated the Mobile IoT Initiative to act decisively to agree these technologies which, once approved, will ensure that they are commercially available and in market as quickly as possible providing customers with a choice which will accelerate adoption and help the Internet of Things to flourish.”

So it appears that the agreement that was announced  in the press release is that of the 26 member Mobile IoT initiative, which has agreed to back these three standards as the best options for LPWA in licensed spectrum. Accordingly the GSMA “encourages” the 3GPP to get on with specifying the standards so that these technologies can get to market as quickly as possible. By the next day this seems to have been turned into the 3GPP accepting the industry agreement.

Does it matter?  Well, I’m not sure. After all, all the GSMA is trying to do is foster and expedite some consolidation around the same technologies.  But it must be a source of slight irritation to 3GPP to be told it had agreed to accept er… its own standards. How does that work?

And it may affect perceptions of how things happen in the industry and who is leading what. For instance take this report from RCR Wireless – which unequivocally states that the GSMA’s Initiative itself developed specs that were then adopted by 3GPP (“The 3rd Generation Partnership Project accepted specifications developed by industry players for low-power wide area network development…The GSMA formed a 27-member Mobile IoT Initiative to develop the LPWA specs and lauded 3GPP’s approval.”)  Yet to repeat, EC-GSMA is a feature that was first identified as a study item by 3GPP in May 2014. So no, a GSMA “initiative” formed in August 2015 did not develop specifications for later approval by 3GPP. So the GSMA’s release has confused at least one media outlet.

And another experienced writer also seemed a bit confused as to what the GSMA announcement actually meant. Sources within the 3GPP have also indicated that they don’t quite understand the GSMA’s release.

The GSMA clearly wants to lead and enable the go-to-market of LPWA IoT tech in licensed spectrum. That is a good thing in an industry that needs agile and nimble leadership – often difficult when there are competing interests and priorities. Talking up your part, however, if that is what has occurred here, can create confusion. Given the confusion the original release caused, perhaps this would have been a better release for the GSMA to put out:

“The members of the GSMA’s Mobile IoT Initiative have decided to focus their development efforts for cellular LPWA around three distinct, as yet unfinalised, 3GPP standards.

Our Mobile IoT Initiative members will be developing tests and trials of these technologies.

The NB-IoT Forum, established to develop services based upon one of the three target technologies, will be a part of the Mobile IoT Initiative.

We would like to see 3GPP move as quickly as it can to finalise these three standards, especially NB-IoT, and we will be helping it if we can, for instance by hosting the extra meeting that will take place in January in Budapest.”

This seems to me to be a clearer portrayal of the 3GPP’s role, and that of the GSMA’s Mobile IoT Initiative.

(*Note – I asked the GSMA for confirmation as to what agreement it was referring to in its press release. Probably for entirely good reasons it was unable to come back to me, so this is at present a best guess, but looks very likely to be the agreement the release is referring to.)

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