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10 January 2019

CableLabs aims to derisk LPWAN roll-out and push cablecos to center stage

The US cablecos are becoming poster children for how non-MNOs can use shared spectrum to grab some of the wireless market from cellcos. Comcast offers IoT services based on LoRA, for instance. And the US cable sector’s R&D arm, CableLabs, has been increasingly active in standards work focused on wireless in shared spectrum, whether 3GPP-based or not, and has developed its own LoRA Server.

The group recently announced its latest project focused on Industrial IoT, entitled LPWAN Server. The aim is to create open source software to enable an LPWAN server to be deployed at low cost on commodity hardware, and to support a variety of connectivity options. While data could be transmitted from sensors and devices to the server via a range of protocols, all the data would be normalized within a single application framework, so that it could be processed and analyzed in a common way, and made available to different apps consistently.

This is designed to allow service providers to deploy LPWAN systems without the risk of backing the wrong horse in standards terms, and that, in turn, should encourage non-MNOs to take the plunge into this market. A multi-technology platform can benefit MNOs too of course – some are using a combination of 4G-based connectivity, in their own spectrum, and unlicensed options. But the main objective for CableLabs would be to lower barriers to deployment for its own members by allowing them to mix and match connectivity protocols according to use case or customer; and to future-proof their networks by supporting multiple standards.

“We don’t see one clear winner in the LPWAN space,” said Daryl Malas, principal architect at CableLabs’ advanced technology group. “We don’t see NB-IoT dominating all use cases. And we don’t see LoRA dominating all use cases.”

A common framework, above the connectivity level, would help build economies of scale and reduce the risk of different vertical industries or individual organizations adopting very specific platforms, which would then become data siloes. That would make it hard for an operator to address multiple industries with the same platform, reducing scale and the attractiveness of the commercial opportunity. That, in turn, would postpone large-scale deployments and leave the market relatively bare – good news for 5G, but less good for industries and cities which want to use LPWAN to support their IoT applications right now.

In the medium term, the LPWAN Server wants to embrace LoRAWAN, Sigfox and Weightless, which CableLabs identifies as unlicensed spectrum protocols with significant market presence (they can also be used in specialized spectrum for private networks, another growing wireless trend). It would also support routing of the cellular technologies – NB-IoT, Cat-M1 and future 5G extensions.

However, the starting point is LoRA, because of the existing support for this connection within the US cable industry. The open source design will be centered on a relay server, which will enable IP traffic to mix with LoRaWAN traffic. Both types of traffic would be sent to the cloud and the application via a single upstream interface, enabling the server to view the connections as a single network. CableLabs has already demonstrated the user interface, and data synchronization, between its own LoRA software server and its new server, as well as between two versions of a LoRA server.

After generic IP, more granular extensions will be made to support the specifics of other LPWANs.

The group says it has initiated talks with several vendors about integrating their APIs (application programming interfaces) into the effort, with the aim of creating a common API that would eliminate the need for CableLabs to support every variation – related to different protocols or even different vendor implementations – in its back end platform.

ARM backs away from NB-IoT and shrinks its Cordio initiative:

Not everyone is ramping up their LPWAN activities. Before the holiday, processor IP giant ARM was reported to be abandoning development of its Cordio hardware IP for NB-IoT, though it will still work on a short range IoT software stack based on Bluetooth, which was also part of its Cordio effort, initiated three years ago to increase ARM’s offering for low power device IP.

According to EETimes, ARM has already closed a Cordio office in Lund, Sweden, which had been focused on NB-IoT, as well as another office in Loughborough, UK, which was working on its image signal processor.

“We are proposing to reshape ARM’s IoT device IP strategy and to stop work on ARM Cordio hardware IP, which includes LPWAN technology and personal area network [PAN],” the company told EETimes. “Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) software remains a key strategic asset. That team and technology will be integrated into our IoT Services Group to support Mbed OS adoption.”

In 2015, ARM acquired Wicentric and Sunrise Micro Devices, and those two purchases formed the basis of the Cordio portfolio and the push into low power and IoT markets. Those companies brought Bluetooth hardware and software assets, and in 2017, ARM added further capabilities, including NB-IoT, when it acquired Mistbase and NextG-Com. ARM said that other aspects of the IoT strategy, such as the expansion of the Pelion IoT platform, remain unchanged. Its overall objective is to create a secure IoT connectivity platform, based on its Mbed OS technology, which would support many protocols and device form factors, including eSIM.