Competing standards emerge as IoT interest ramps steeply

Published on the 04/07/2017 | Written by Donovan Jackson

LPWAN technologies

Spark, Vodafone ready to scale deployments on different LPWAN technologies…

A flurry of excitement around the Internet of Things with the release of new research which shows how these things can benefit New Zealand, closely followed by announcements from Spark and Vodafone which details their intention to get in on what looks like some serious action soon. However, there are competing standards emerging for the essential ‘missing link’ often overlooked in IoT: the low power WAN (LPWAN).

Those standards include Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT), LoRa and Sigfox. And, yes, a slight dose of confusion as to who’s who and what’s what.

For some detail of the three standards which are attracting the most interest in New Zealand, provided this piece which also explains the attendant advantages and disadvantages of each.

But on to the research. Released last week by the NZ IOT Alliance, and titled ‘The Internet of Things – Accelerating a Connected New Zealand’, it starts by explaining the usual stuff where IoT is concerned, then goes on to quantify how and where the benefits of a ‘connected New Zealand’ are to be found.

However, while finding that 70 percent of companies believe IoT will be transformational or strategic, across multiple areas in which connected things could have an economic impact –local government, telecommunications, agribusiness, utilities and even academia – the actual use is in its infancy. A mere 14 percent of organisations have deployed solutions to date.

Risk was hinted at by Transport Minister Simon Bridges, who commented on the release of the NZ IOT Alliance research. In a statement, he said: “Given IoT is an emerging technology, there’s still a lot we don’t know. The research tells a really positive story that the benefit of IoT could be far greater to our economy. Emerging technologies also present new challenges, and the research identifies some areas we’ll be considering further, such as security and privacy of IoT data.”

Not the same as the regular internet
In his view, making a reality of IoT is something that rests in the hands of the administration, rather than private enterprise: “The Government has a key role to play in ensuring that New Zealand can take advantage of what IoT has to offer, through our programme of work to improve access to faster broadband for all New Zealanders. Better connectivity means that people and businesses can make the most of emerging technologies such as IoT, increase productivity and competitiveness, and build a foundation for entrepreneurship and continued innovation.”

In fact, IoT doesn’t directly rest on the availability of decent internet; while the UFB project is laudable and establishes the sort of infrastructure necessary for a modern, prosperous nation, IoT depends on something else.

That something else is the ability to connect low cost sensors which can run off the same battery for tens of years; these are not mobile phones, laptops, fridges or other devices which are essentially just another Network Interface Card, but dedicated devices which are designed more to transmit than to receive.

That’s why Greg Howard, NZ BDM for Thinxtra, told iStart that while handy and certainly generating plenty of interest, the NZ IoT Alliance report didn’t put enough of a focus on the LPWAN sector, leading to continued misperceptions of what the IoT is.

“LPWAN is the key to making the IoT a reality; this is how you get cheap sensors with relatively cheap connectivity to monitor and measure anything,” he explained. “It’s about economies of scale and volume.”

Big guns train on IoT
And that’s where Spark and Vodafone come into the picture. Spark said in a statement that it is introducing a nationwide LoRa network, which has been under development by Kordia for some time. LoRaWAN is a proprietary standard, the silicon of which is licensed by American company Semtech.

Michael Stribling Spark GM for IoT said the company is “Moving to take a leadership position in IoT because we already have a lot of capabilities needed to make the most of a more connected world.” Those capabilities include its network, platforms and Qrious (Spark’s big data offshoot).

Stribling added that the network is expected to be operational by June 2018. By contrast, Thinxtra already operates a Sigfox network (also rolled out by Kordia) which it said in March covers 88 percent of the country’s population.

Said Howard: “LPWAN is there today – people can connect to Sigfox right now , while Spark is playing with LoRa and Vodafone is backing NB-IoT, which when released will be potentially formidable in several IOT market verticals.”

And indeed, Vodafone has just announced that it is concentrating on NB-IoT, a technology which is only coming to market more or less right now. “There are many IoT networks available now but we think NB-IoT is a premium technology choice that is worth waiting for,” said Vodafone technology director Tony Baird in a statement. “It is supported by over 40 of the world’s largest mobile operators plus many more suppliers and innovators that serve the majority of the global IoT market.”

But Spark isn’t just playing with LoRa. It is also advancing plans to deploy mobile network-based IoT networks on the LTE-M1 and NB-IoT standards. Stribling said, “We believe that there are different use cases emerging for different IoT networks, depending on the level and type of data that needs to be transmitted by IoT devices. In making an investment in LoRa, in addition to LTE investments, Spark believes it will be in position to provide the broadest set of IoT solutions to its customers.”

Interoperability problems on the horizon?
But formidable or not, here’s the thing with NB-IoT: it isn’t yet commercially available. But Howard said it could be potent because for many (existing) 4G base stations, NB-IoT may be a firmware upgrade although, apparently, some equipment made by Alcatel doesn’t offer this benefit, according to the Link Labs piece.

But do competing standards equate to problems of interoperability? Not necessarily. Howard said this isn’t a situation of incompatibility like the old VHS vs Betamax wars of the ‘90s, something which is perhaps apparent in Kordia’s involvement in both the Sigfox network and Spark’s LoRa, which will likely be offered out from some of the same sites.

Instead, he said it is akin to connecting to the internet over different standards, like 3G or satellite – it doesn’t really matter, so long as there is connectivity. “But the standards do have different strengths and weaknesses; Sigfox is better in asset tracking or cold chain monitoring, while LoRaWAN can be used for smaller scale networks across a defined geography. Both protocols are strong options for Agritech due to their transmission range, though exporters are likely to go with Sigfox or NB-IOT for supply chain due to their global footprint.”

Furthermore, added Howard, “Manufacturers of the chipsets for IoT are already designing both LoRa and Sigfox into the same devices – and when NB-IoT comes along, that will probably be added in, too.”

Questions or comments...

  1. Greg H

    Spark and Vodafone needed to make an announcement due to the release of the report as Sigfox is roaring ahead with design in slots across the country through a strong relationship with Kordia. The message is that people will design product in if 1) there are devices 2) there is a network and 3) there is a business case for the end user.


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