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10 January 2019

Evolution of unlicensed LPWAN technologies threatens 5G in key markets

There are several discrepancies in the 5G narrative, which will start to become glaringly obvious as commercial roll-outs begin. An important one is that, in nearly all models, increased enterprise business is essential to the 5G case. Much of this will be driven by low latency, low power applications in the Internet of Things space. Yet the 5G capabilities which promise to support such use cases, more effectively than 4G or unlicensed spectrum alternatives, are not included in the first release of standards; and most operators are building their first 5G networks to support their familiar – but stagnating – mobile broadband markets.

The risk for the MNOs is that other technologies will fill the short term gap for low power or low latency applications, and that by the time low latency, IoT-focused 5G technologies are fully commercial, the addressable market will have been squeezed, and the alternative networks will have evolved to be more comparable to 5G anyway. None of that would matter if the short term IoT build-outs were still driven by MNOs – many acknowledge, in the wide area IoT space, that they do not expect to deploy a low power 5G WAN for many years, because 4G-based NB-IoT and LTE Cat M do the job for now, and are only just being built out.

The risk lies in unlicensed spectrum technologies, whether specific LPWAN platforms like LoRA, or WiFi-based extensions like HaLOW, being harnessed by non-MNOs to seize a big share of the machine-to-machine (M2M) market, especially in sectors where demand is expected to develop quickly over the coming few years, such as intelligent transport and broader city operations networks. Accelerated activity by the cable industry, especially in the USA, and the huge WiFi community, should both send warning signals to 5G operators.