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Low Power Flowers

by David Parker, Senior Analyst

April

Blog


The phrase ‘Let a thousand flowers bloom’ is a common misquotation attributed to Chairman Mao who did in fact say ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom’. His pronouncement in the summer of 1957 was designed to elicit the opinions of the Chinese intelligentsia. Those whose writings did not agree with the Communist party line were promptly executed, a sort of Russian roulette by essay writing. This communist political slogan has, with a ten-fold floral inflation, morphed into an idiom more commonly associated with capitalism, most notably to describe the way companies and technologies compete, to either create new markets or disrupt existing ones.
 
In the world of IoT, new markets are being created by the availability of technologies capable of connecting objects which were previously uneconomical to connect, or could not connect with existing technologies due to power constraints. What we used to call M2M (how quaint that term seems today!) got started thanks to the ubiquity of GSM standards. In the very early days, devices were connected using circuit switched 2G, until the early 2000’s when an enhancement allowing packet data (GPRS) on 2G networks made connecting machines much easier. Billing systems were adapted to cope with ‘amount of data sent’ rather than ‘circuit time active’, resulting in lower costs for end-users. Prices have been falling ever since. Thanks to GSM and evolving 3GPP standards bringing higher data rates with 3G and 4G (LTE), the number of M2M connections rose from a few hundred thousand in the early 2000’s to several hundred million by the 2010’s. More recently, the idea that anything with a microprocessor may be worth combining with a radio has led to the IoT concept, with visions of connection numbers in the billions.
 
In recent years we have seen how this vast potential has spurred a flourishing of new wireless technologies, not perhaps a thousand flowers blooming but certainly several dozen variations. Most use the ISM bands, where improvements in transceiver technology has allowed much longer ranges to be achieved, extending the capabilities of the ISM bands mesh networks to wide area distances. Sigfox and companies in the LoRa Alliance use either the 868 MHz or 915 MHz bands to offer connectivity services using a variety of business models. Sigfox, and some service operators deploying LoRa technology build a network first before selling connectivity services on the network. This is a traditional business model, akin to how GSM networks are built and operated, although the costs of deployment are much lower. Other organisations, both public and private purchase LoRa network capability as a kit of parts and run their own private networks. Anything from municipalities connecting parking sensors and street lights to logistics service companies tracking packages and assets. As of end 2017, 90% of IoT connections using LoRa technology were with private networks. Connections to LoRa public networks are likely to increase as a percentage over the next few years, with established operators ramping up their LoRa offerings and some large deals driving connectivity numbers. Innovative business models such as those offered by Senet, a LoRa network operator in the USA, include Network as a Service (NaaS) and Low Power Wide Area Virtual Networks where a local network provider can build their own LoRa network but access the BSS/OSS systems of Senet, speeding up time to market. They can also tap into the wider LoRa ecosystem of devices designed for connection to LoRa networks.  

Proprietary ISM band networks have been developed and deployed by companies to offer connectivity where objects do not have access to a power supply. NFC Group in the UK have built the Orion network, tailored to support their asset tracking solutions business. In Germany, Lemonbeat, now owned by energy giant Innogy operate an ISM band network offering services in the energy, building and industrial markets. There are many more examples of this, representing a growing contribution to the ‘billions’ forecast for IoT connectivity. 
Not all of these ‘low power flowers’ sit in the ISM band garden. The Wi-SUN (Smart Utility Networks) Alliance represents companies using the IEEE 802.15.4g standard. This technology works in a similar way to other IEEE mesh networks but has a longer range and is very well suited to smart metering, smart street lighting and HVAC applications. Silverspring, now part of ITron have an extensive Wi-SUN network in the USA, while Tokyo electric power company (TEPCO) have over 12 million smart metering and HVAC connections using Wi-SUN. Globally, Wi-SUN is estimated to have over 60 million connections and with companies such as Philips building Wi-SUN into their smart LED offerings, this number will grow rapidly.
 
Finally, we must remember that those in the GSM world have not been asleep at the wheel. LTE-M and NBIoT networks are rolling out around the world, supported by the established Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) and we expect to see rapid growth in IoT connection numbers from the cellular world. The availability of low power connectivity on established cellular networks provides an opportunity for more innovative business models to emerge. Most notable is the recent launch of 1NCE at MWC 2018. Based in Germany and with the backing of Deutsche Telekom, 1NCE offers a simple and compelling proposition to customers wishing to connect devices in large numbers via an up-front payment of €10 for 10 years of connectivity and 500Mb of data. During 2018 1NCE will offer both ‘traditional’ 2G services and low power NBIoT connectivity as these services become available in Europe. Many flowers are indeed blooming in the world of IoT connectivity and not all will survive but unlike those hapless highbrows in 1950’s China, there will be no executions!

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