Ericsson and Telstra claim 94km LTE Cat-NB range to chase Huawei

Ericsson seems to have caught up with Huawei’s claimed LTE Cat-NB performance, announcing a 94km connection in Australia on Telstra’s network, improving from 40km. It wasn’t long ago that Huawei announced a 2x increase in the coverage of its own Cat-NB cell sites, and so this looks like Ericsson leap-frogging its rival – although we have yet to confirm that either way.

However, the Telstra-Ericsson announcement stresses the advantage that this gives for rural deployments, which again brings up our main gripe with this idea that L-LPWAN is a good candidate for such applications. If there is already an LTE network in place, then sure, this works. However, most people will be painfully familiar with the state of rural LTE coverage, and given the low-value of many of these applications, there’s really not much incentive to roll out a new LTE network to serve them.

Sure, an existing LTE base station might be software upgradeable, but that’s a moot point if the network doesn’t already cover the required area. This is why U-LPWAN technologies like LoRa and Sigfox are great candidates, because the installation costs compared to L-LPWAN are much lower. LoRa has the added benefit of being an option for campus-based deployments, such that a gateway on a grain silo is a very viable option for things like field irrigation.

In addition, you will note that Telstra makes no mention of its current LTE footprint coverage for rural Australia, a country that spans around 4,000km, and in which the population is heavily clustered on the coasts. The outback is pretty desolate, although it does house some very profitable mining operations.

It does, however, say that its LTE Cat M1 (LTE-M, Release 13) coverage is around 3mn square-kilometers, and that the new capability will provide LTE Cat-NB over 3.5mn square-kilometers. This is around 45% of the landmass, apparently, but that doesn’t tally up at all with what Telstra shows its customers on its website.

Telstra’s LTE coverage map, unsurprisingly, shows that it has LTE coverage in these population centers. Queensland, New South Wales, and Western Australia all have coverage that rapidly falls off once you travel inland from the coasts, while the Northern Territories is much the same. If there are large towns inland, you will find LTE coverage, but once you factor in the absence of 3G, the case for U-LPWAN does get stronger.

This is, of course, not a problem unique to Telstra. Australia is perhaps one of the most extreme countries to operate in, but the fact of the matter is that LTE exists where the people live, because that’s how MNOs get to sell lucrative smartphone data plans – and in the near future, lucrative data plans for cars.

Geopolitically, this is important for Australians interested in LTE Cat-NB, as the Australian government passed laws banning Huawei from competing in 5G networks – measures that are sure to impact future LTE rollouts, or at least the enthusiasm for such expansions. This leaves Ericsson and Nokia as preferable vendors, and we expect Nokia to announce similar range extension capabilities soon.

The test itself saw mIoT provide a Captis temperature sensor, which managed to communicate with a Telstra base station on Mount Cenn Cruaich, in Warrumbungle National Park, New South Wales. The sensor was three floors below ground level, in an underground car park in central Sydney. Telstra was showing off the demo at its Vantage Conference, in Melbourne. That’s just about the limit of inland travel before consistent LTE coverage disappears, and it’s about the same distance further until 3G falls off.

Channa Seneviratne, Telstra’s Executive Director, Network and Infrastructure Engineering, said “Telstra already had Australia’s largest IoT coverage with Cat M1 across our 4G metro, regional and rural coverage footprint. With this NB-IoT extended range feature, we have now extended our coverage to more than three and a half million square kilometers, delivering our customers the best IoT coverage and capability in the country. Once again Telstra, working closely in partnership with Ericsson, has delivered innovation that ensures the benefits of IoT technology can be enjoyed by the largest number of Australians, not just those in the cities and towns.”