Sigfox and LoRa march onwards as Weightless releases dev kit; the race to gain a foothold before the arrival of the LTE equivalents

As the 3GPP pushes towards standardizing the LTE-based equivalents of the LPWAN technology used by a number of smaller companies in the IoT, the window is slowly closing for the likes of Sigfox and LoRa. While the MNOs wait for the 3GPP to set its standard in stone, the LPWAN players have free reign in the market to snap up as many customers as possible before the monolithic weight of the LTE market presence is brought to bear.

Of course, many of the LPWAN vendors are involved in the 3GPP, and some of the MNOs are already investigating LPWAN deployments, so this isn’t as adversarial a contest as that first paragraph might make it sound. But since their emergence, the two most prominent LPWAN players, Sigfox and LoRa, have been pushing hard to snap up as much business as possible before a technology emerges that can enjoy the brand recognition associated with cellular – as new potential customers are more likely to trust something from AT&T, Verizon, or Telefonica than they are from a startup.

This inertia can of course be countered by innovative technology or compelling business case demonstrations and marketing, and while the cellular community hasn’t yet launched a unified approach, there is a lot of room for the likes of Sigfox, LoRa, Weightless, Ingenu, and Link Labs to play.

In the past few weeks, the announcements have been ramping up. Semtech (the creator of the LoRa protocol itself, and the key IP owner) has been most active, announcing that The Lace Company, a wireless operator, has deployed LoRa network architecture in over a dozen Russian cities, claiming to cover 30m people over 9,000km2. Lace is currently aiming at building out Russian coverage, but will be able to communicate to other LoRa devices over the LoRa cloud, as the messages are managed on cloud servers once they have been transmitted from end-device to base unit via LoRaWAN.

“Our network allows the user to connect to an unlimited number of smart sensors,” said Igor Shirokov, CEO of Lace Ltd. “We are providing connectivity to any device that supports the open LoRaWAN standard. Any third party company can create new businesses and services in IoT and M2M market based on our network and the LoRaWAN protocol.”

Elsewhere, Saudi Arabian telco Du has launched a test LoRa network in Dubai, as part of a smart city test project. “This is a defining moment in the UAE’s smart city transformation,” said Carlos Domingo, senior executive officer at Du. “We need a new breed of sensor friendly network to establish the smart city ecosystem. Thanks to Du, this capability now exists in the UAE Today we’ve shown how our network capabilities and digital know-how can deliver the smart city ecosystem Dubai needs. We will not stop in Dubai; our deployment will continue country-wide throughout the UAE.”

But the biggest recent LoRa news is that Orange has committed itself to a national French network rollout, following an investment in key LoRa player Actility. Orange has previously trialed a LoRa network in Grenoble, and has said that it opted for LoRa over Sigfox thanks to its more open ecosystem – although it’s worth clarifying here that Semtech still gets a royalty on every LoRa chip that’s made, and will continue to do so until it chooses not to or instead donates the IP to the non-profit LoRa Alliance itself.

“As a part of our new strategic plan Essentials2020, Orange has an ambition to become the number one operator for the Internet of Things,” said Orange CEO Stéphane Richard. “To answer all the needs, we decided, as a supplement to the cellular networks, to deploy a national network dedicated to objects that need narrow-band connectivity, and also to low energy consumption. This network, based on the technology LoRa, will gradually open from the first quarter of 2016.”

France is something of a hotbed for LPWAN tech, and Orange joins Bouygues in committing to establishing a French network. The country is also home to Sigfox and its national network, and Sigfox has also made notable announcements in the past few weeks.

First up, the company secured a deal with EI Towers and its new subsidiary Nettrotter to roll out a national Italian network, making Italy the tenth country to receive at least partial Sigfox coverage. The announcement noted that Italy has more than 7 million M2M connections, and is one of the biggest M2M markets in Europe.

“Italian IoT customers are keen to adopt new, beneficial technology applications across multiple sectors such as smart cities, health care, manufacturing, construction, transportation and safety and security,” said Carlos Lambarri, Netrotter CEO. “The Sigfox network is key to Nettrotter’s plan to install and operate the IoT throughout Italy, because it provides highly scalable connectivity at low-cost and very low energy consumption for connected devices.”

Across the Atlantic, Sigfox has announced that it will be using Eutelsat’s SmartLNB satellite technology for wireless backhaul from its base stations. This functionality allows for remote deployments, in locations that may not have adequate fixed wire connections for use in relaying the messages from the network edge back to the central Sigfox cloud.

SmartLNB is a low-power, low bitrate technology that has made a few appearances in the satellite TV market, as a return path for set top boxes that might not have a direct connection to the internet. In this guise, the SmartLNB link would be sending multiscreen video content to the home, with the ability to plug a WiFi gateway into the satellite connection in order to enjoy video-on-demand on tablets or smartphones, without a traditional home internet connection. The return path allows the authorization and conditional access services to operate.

But Eutelsat has since adapted the platform for use in IoT applications, whether they are within the home alongside the TV offering, or outside the home in the more familiar industrial and enterprise installations – deployments that will likely be in remote regions where a fixed-line backhaul link isn’t practical, such as oil and gas.

Sigfox says its US rollout is still on track, aiming to cover ten major cities by the first quarter of next year. The US market will also be the first to see the use of the SmartLNB technology, using Eutelsat’s 113 West A satellite to supply a complete North American footprint

Weightless-N SDK released:

Elsewhere in the LPWAN space, the Weightless SIG has announced the release of the development kit for its short-range Weightless-N standard. Featuring a desktop base station that matches the commercial-grade equivalent, a development board, pole-mounted end-product, module antenna, and all the necessary accessories. The hardware offering is completed by the ARM Cortex-M3 MCU SDK.

The 128KB microcontroller has access to a number of supporting software tools, including Simplicity Studio and a GNU C compiler. Developed by Nwave, the lead (almost sole) contributor to Weightless-N, the kit is being sold at cost to Weightless SIG members – although there are a number of free units available.

Weightless differs from LoRa and Sigfox in that it has aimed to create an open standard from the off. However, its standards have not exactly been collaborative efforts. The original Weightless-W standard was largely derived from Neul’s TV white spaces (TVWS) implementation, development of which was sidelined after Neul was acquired by Huawei, and after the SIG encountered continuous difficulty in developing to suit the dozens of different requirements for each country’s white space regulation.

The SIG then finalized Weightless-N, a short range protocol based on Nwave’s own protocol, which the company contributed to the SIG. Broadly, this version of Weightless is fairly short range, and aimed at unidirectional applications. The other, newer protocol is Weightless-P, and is similar to LoRa in functionality. It is, again, almost solely based on M2Comm’s Platanus protocol.

Weightless CEO, William Webb, commented “designers have been keenly anticipating the launch of the Weightless SDK – that wait is now over.” He added “we’re keen to see LPWAN projects commence rapidly so to celebrate the launch we’re making it easy to engage with Weightless technology by offering a limited number of kits available for free.”

The move from LTE Cat 1 to the Cat M Holy Grail, as Cat 0 is squeezed:

Earlier this week, we spoke to Altair Semiconductor’s co-founder and VP Marketing, Eran Eshed, for a catchup on the company’s LTE Cat 1 and Cat 0 plans – the LTE version of the functionality provided by the three aforementioned LPWAN players. Eshad had some interesting things to say about the direction that LTE’s LPWAN challenge is taking.

The aforementioned context behind the surge of the LPWAN technology is that the cellular MNOs will eventually catch up and bring their very large marketing and R&D budgets into play – providing them with a competitive advantage, but perhaps not the agility to lead the pack. As such, the LPWAN technologies will soon face a concerted challenge from the cellular industry, and will have to ensure their affairs are in order to stave them off.

Eshad’s main point was that Cat 0 is being squeezed between Cat 1 and the upcoming Cat M, which he said was the holy grail of the current 3GPP standardization process. Eshad said that there is currently no carrier commitment to Cat 0 – the version of LTE that promises very low power consumption and a maximum bandwidth of 1Mbps, over a single antenna to reduce costs.

He added that Altair and Sequans can currently provide Cat 1 hardware that uses a single antenna, which reduces the validity of the argument for Cat 0 owing to its potential low cost. However, the biggest cost for adopting Cat 0 will be the necessary infrastructure upgrades to accommodate it on an LTE network – hence the lack of carrier commitment.

Cat M will also require network upgrades, but the carriers have made it clear that they are happier to wait until they absolutely have to roll out these improvements, and are meeting the 2G migration requirements using the Cat 1 devices – which can live perfectly happily on the current 4G networks, and are benchmarked at achieving ten year battery lives.

Eshad expects the first Cat M networks to appear in 2017, after Release 13 of the LTE spec. Noting that all the major players are pursuing Cat M development, he feels that the recently formed NB-IoT working group (the result of forcing the two rival IoT groups in the 3GPP to collaborate) will certainly contribute to Release 13, but likely as an extension and not in the first iteration – unlike Cat M. There is also the issue of the NB-IoT output not playing nice with the LTE networks, meaning interoperability could be tricky.

While Cat 1 has unquestionably arrived, Eshad is firm in his opinion that Cat 0 isn’t going to get off the ground in anything like the fashion that Cat M will, in 2017 and 2018. The smaller LPWAN players will be painfully aware that there is an imperative in the industry to gain a strong foothold in the market before the full weight of the 3GPP NB-IoT group’s marketing budgets and industry connections come to bear.

While Eshad notes that “this is physics; there’s no magic here,” with names including the likes of Ericsson, Nokia, Qualcomm, Huawei and Intel, there’s certainly no need for magic in promoting the likes of Cat M or the NB-IoT output to potential customers – brand recognition and marketing goes a long way, and so the LPWAN players have to get out in front, although there will inevitably be a lot of space for smaller and niche deployments in the gargantuan IoT.