Why are operators investing in non-cellular LPWA IoT?

Another French operator announces a commitment to non-cellular network technology for IoT, but plenty of others are prepared to wait and make a major move in 2017.

Another French operator has committed to providing low bandwidth IoT services using non-cellular connectivity.

SFR/Altice has signed a deal to resell Sigfox’s connectivity in France and other countries. That means that of the four mainstream French operators, three have now committed to using non-cellular technology to hook up IoT devices, Orange and Bouygues having already committed to services using LoRa-based networks.

The operator will use Sigfox to tackle markets that are not a good match for LTE or 2/3G-based M2M – usually those apps requiring only low power, low bandwidth access.

SFR’s Michel Combes, CEO, said that the reason for choosing Sigfox was that it offered “the best existing brick with an offer that is already deployed”. Note that he said Sigfox is the best fit, but not the perfect fit. Importantly, though, he said that Sigfox is already deployed. Why Sigfox over LoRa? “For its seamless continuity of service,” Combes said.

Sigfox claims to already have 92% population coverage in France, and its message has always been that it sees itself not as a competitor to cellular IoT, but as a complement.

The temptation is to think that investments in non-cellular IoT precludes investment in EC-GSM and NB-IOT, the 3GPP R13 technologies for low power cellular IoT. But operators don’t necessarily see it that way. Orange’s Yves Bellego, for instance, said that Orange sees LoRa as a good solution for getting to market fast, but the operator is also likely to to invest in the cellular equivalents, when they are ready. That would mean there may be already-installed LoRa devices to support into the future, but Bellego said that ongoing opex is low. He added that the idea is to have common core and service platforms, no matter what the end radio access technology is.

Although Orange would have some sunk capex in LoRa, SFR is acting as a reseller of Sigfox’s connectivity, so it doesn’t carry any capex forward, and in theory would be able to switch technology platform if it wanted to, fsigor new users or use cases.

Moreover, the situation in France contrasts with the markets in Germany and the UK, where the major operators have not made matching selections. Sigfox’s entry into the UK market has been via a partnership with network infrastructure owner Arqiva. Arqiva has been responsible for signing partners, and today announced that its first reseller would be Wireless Logic.

Vodafone, a key operator in both the UK and Germany, is very much a leading player in developing NB-IOT tech – both in partnership with its supplier Huawei, and as a founder member and chair of the NB-IOT Forum. The reason is really one of market necessity. Where there is a major market to go after, or a government-imposed target on something like smart metering, and operators feel they need to move right away – then there is little choice.

It seems where they can afford to wait for the cellular alternative, then they will. The reasons are that they see NB-IOT and its 2G equivalent EC-GSM as offering more control and better performance. However, they do see the need for speed, hence the rapidity with which 3GPP has moved to standardise low power variants in the past year.

Answering a question from TMN, Ericsson’s Eric Parsons said that operators had invested in noncellular LPWA to date simply because it is available. “The technology is there and business cases emerged to make it a positive business case. To some extent that is why the 3GPP community came together in record time to delivery a solution for the long term.

“Operators can take a network that they have today and simply activate capability in the network with a grid that already exists, with simple site activation. This quick deployment will be an important aspect.”

Nokia’s said interoperability and the availability of an ecosystem upon which developers can build applications will be a core advantage for cellular IoT., “We have to show our customers’ customers that this is the right choice over other technologies, so showing the breadth of the ecosystem, and demonstrating interoperability, is one thing.”

One other hope for cellular IoT is that it offers more reliability, via its use of licensed spectrum. Ulrich Dropmann of Nokia said that he knew of one deployment where a company (not a Nokia customer) complained because their devices had stopped working for a couple of days due to cranes on a nearby building site using the same ISM band. Deployment in managed, licensed spectrum, can take away the random nature of performance, he said. “The brand of the operator is reliability and security,” he added.

Certainly there are some major deployments planned for cellular IoT. Huang Yuhong, Deputy General Manager, China Mobile Research Institute, said that China Mobile would have deployment by the end of 2016, with “very big” commercial deployment commencing in 2017. She was quoting numbers like 10 billion cellular IoT devices in China by 2020. China Mobile is hoping that its presence at such a scale will help mature the market for everyone. To enable it to move, the operator wants to see highly integrated chipsets, with open API standards finished in time to align with that late-2016 commercial deployment.China Mobile NB IOT

The challenge for Semtech and those in the LoRa camp, and also for Sigfox, will be to use the 12-18 month advantage they have to establish a beach-head, and then defend it against incursions from standardised licensed spectrum tech in years to come. The challenge for the licensed spectrum tech is to build true benefits of the 3GPP ecosystem behind the newly-standardised specs. But there are plenty who feel that cellular/non-cellular needn’t be a straight either/or choice, and even that operators can benefit from the flexibility the market offers them, rather than be confused or confounded. One operator said to TMN that with billions of connections up for grabs the market will be big enough to support a number of variants – so they can afford to be relaxed in terms of technology choice. Others, such as Vodafone and China Mobile, certainly see a much greater need for urgency to get cellular standards for LPWA IoT into the market.