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Mobile Communications June 2016 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Michael Gold

Low-Power Networking for the Internet of Things

Why is this topic significant?

For many connected things, typical cellular services require excessive battery power and impose excessive service costs. Various wide-area-networking technologies are candidates to connect low-cost, low-power, low-bandwidth devices.

Description

More than a dozen competing radio technologies are candidates to connect diverse things to low-power wide-area-network (LPWAN) services. The competing technologies have different business models, rely on different spectrum bands, and vary in data rate and maximum distance to a base station.

Sigfox is a service provider that uses a proprietary LPWAN technology to cover a fairly large portion of western Europe; the company licenses that technology to chipmakers that sell components to equipment makers. Other LPWANs are on the technology road map that most cellular services follow, namely that of the 3GPP industry and standards association. Three different technologies are under development by 3GPP working groups, including two technologies (LTE Cat-M1 and LTE Cat-M2) that will compete to add capability to 4G deployments, plus the 2G-like EC-GSM. The choice "depends on the operator's use cases and network evolution strategy which is the best option for them," according to an Ericsson official. Additional standards-based options are two specifications from the IEEE 802 LAN/MAN Standards Committee (802.15.4k and 802.15.4g) plus variants of Dash7, M-Bus, Weightless, and WirelessHART.

But LPWAN services can also choose from several additional, proprietary technologies. Major carriers Bouygues, KPN, Orange, SK Telecom, and Swisscom are among the service providers serving or planning to serve IoT markets by means of a technology promoted by the LoRa Alliance; the LoRa protocol is proprietary, and only one chipmaker (Semtech) supplies components for compatible radios. Additional players that have seen at least some success in commercializing proprietary LPWAN technologies include Accellus, Aclara, Greenivity, Greenwave Systems, Ingenu, Nwave, Rajant, Sensus, Telensa, and WavIoT.

Implications

For devices that need narrowband connections, LPWAN services can be much less expensive than typical cellular service; and they can connect to things whose batteries are small and nonrechargeable, and that remain in place for months or years before requiring replacement. In many such devices, including smart utility meters, smart parking meters, and smart streetlights, cost reduction is a key goal for cities and utility companies. Wireless service providers and technology start-ups might struggle to find dramatic growth opportunities in cases when expected savings—not increased profits—are the sources of funding for infrastructure purchases.

Impacts/Disruptions

LPWAN technologies and services represent opportunities to the extent that people and organizations connect things in large numbers. If the IoT expands as much as stakeholders expect it to, the LPWANs would be important channels for delivering the benefits that the IoT confers, possibly including streamlined utilities, the ability to locate a place to park a vehicle, the ability to locate lost and stolen objects, improved environmental sensing, and so on.

Considering the crowded field, players face major challenges to grow business volume and establish economies of scale. The field will likely narrow as players are eliminated or acquired. But excessive industry consolidation would also not ensure rapid development of the IoT. A player that dominates a geographic region and that sees little competition could be slow to introduce improvements and quick to raise prices.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Cellular-network services, fixed wireless services, electronics manufacturers, network equipment manufacturers, managed base-station operation services, government systems

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Satellites for Mobile Communications

Why is this topic significant?

New satellite services could be important to fulfill growing demand for communications, and they might help provide 4G or equivalent coverage to the entire planet.

Description

Five existing satellite constellations—Globalstar, Inmarsat, Iridium, Spot, and Thuraya—provide mobile communications service to extremely large geographic regions, with Iridium providing 100% global coverage. (Very many other satellites and constellations provide two-way data services but not to handheld devices.) The services are somewhat mature and serve niche markets, especially truly remote workers such as maritime and oil-industry crews, along with government workers, journalists, and adventurers. People use the services of necessity. Prices are high, phones are bulky, and data rates are slow.

Some incumbent satellite services provide backhaul to cell sites that connect to popular 3G and 4G phones. Cell sites can use satellite backhaul from companies including Eutelsat, Intelsat, and SES.

Organizations now aim to deploy new low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellite constellations, which promise high throughput and low delay:

  • OneWeb secured more than $500 million in investments from organizations including Airbus, the Coca-Cola Company, Echostar, Intelsat, Qualcomm, and Virgin Galactic to launch a satellite broadband service. Several satellite builders, not just Airbus, are bidding to supply 900 satellites for OneWeb, presumably for launch by Virgin Galactic.
  • SpaceX, which has secured some $1 billion in investments from Google and Fidelity Ventures, has various goals for commercialization of space technologies, including building and deploying some 4,000 satellites.
  • Other development efforts that do not appear to have secured funding and other requisites yet include those at eightyLEO, LaserLight, LeoSat, Samsung, and Xinwei Telecom Enterprise Group.

Champions of the new networks tend to emphasize fixed broadband applications, which would likely include cellular backhaul. Apparently, only XinWei expresses the goal of connecting directly to mobile devices, with eightyLEO and Samsung expecting to connect to vehicle-mounted devices.

Implications

Organizations have tried and, for various reasons, failed to launch large LEO constellations in the past. Space programs are expensive. Unprecedented technical challenges face organizations that expect satellites to carry a large fraction of the world's voice and data traffic. Incumbent satellite services threaten to cherry-pick the most attractive opportunities. And citizens of the least-developed nations, who would benefit from an overnight coverage rollout, cannot serve as the main source of revenue for satellite communications.

Yet satellite visionaries believe they can overcome these difficulties. Competition might drive down the costs of satellites sufficiently to change business rules. Satellite miniaturization promises to help reduce those costs. And demand for truly global broadband coverage could grow as deep-pocket businesses seek free-trade opportunities worldwide and as competitive forces drive workers into the remote places where the world's cheapest raw materials reside.

Impacts/Disruptions

Can new satellites enable affordable options for billions of people? The question is of special interest to organizations that want to serve people in developing countries, where lack of affordability and coverage obstruct commercialization of mobile communications. Facebook and Google seem willing to subsidize service via airborne platforms that they are researching. But airborne communications switches are unproven, and their operation might be costly. If efforts to commercialize space technologies succeed in delivering affordable broadband and mobile services, the Silicon Valley giants might be able to use satellite services to fulfill their goals of extending their advertising-sales footprints to cover today's unconnected populations.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Satellite communications, satellite broadcasting, backbone services, network equipment, consumer electronics, semiconductors, discrete electronic components, electronics packaging, testing and compliance services

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: