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India gears up for LPWAN battle as NB-IoT looms

The LoRa Alliance is strengthening its Indian infrastructure in preparation for the nationwide roll out of NB-IoT networks. India’s first domestic LoRaWAN test center opened this week, streamlining the deployment of LoRaWAN devices. This is just in time for arrival of the major MNOs into the Indian LPWAN market.

It was announced this week that TUV Rheinland has just opened India’s first LoRaWAN certification testing site in Bangalore, with DEKRA set to open another in Mumbai by the end of the year. Also announced was the availability of the LoRaWAN Certification Test Tool (LCTT), which lets developers better examine how their systems are going to fair during the certification process.

The test centers allow Indian developers to check their devices quickly against the LoRaWAN specification – previously developers would need to ship these to external centers, the nearest ones being in Taiwan, South Korea or Japan.

This investment is needed. India’s LPWAN market is about to be hit with the arrival of the first commercial cellular LPWAN standard. Earlier this year, Reliance Jio announced it would be launching India’s first nationwide Cat-NB network in January 2020. The company first successfully trialed the licensed LPWAN (L-LPWAN) protocol in Mumbai in 2018.

Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea have announced plans to do the same, with both companies already piloting the networks. Launch dates have yet to be confirmed, although Vodafone Idea have committed to nationwide coverage by mid-2020.

It is expected that by 2025, India will host 1.9bn IoT connections – 7.6% of 25bn connections globally. There are currently around 120 IoT firms in India, although most of them seem to operate in consumer-facing sectors – not traditional LPWAN territory.

MNOs have often expressed skepticism surrounding the long-term legitimacy of unlicensed LPWAN (U-LPWAN). Yet their preoccupation with the smartphone land grab has allowed the U-LPWAN players to penetrate many markets. In India, LoRaWAN has been the only nationwide LPWAN for years with two public network operators – Tata Communications and SenRa.

In another bid to stimulate innovation of LoRaWAN networks and devices, the Alliance also announced that the LoRaWAN Certification Test Tool (LCTT) was now available to members globally.

Areas where LoRa and NB-IoT networks compete with one another are likely to be in manufacturing, it’s unlikely that either technology will be an obvious victor. Real time machine monitoring is invaluable, but the need for a high frequency of communication is entirely dependent on the specific application. It is likely that NB-IoT will become the standard network for mission critical machine monitoring, but LoRa will keep hold of many other operations.

NB-IoT is well served to uses such as utility metering, due to the high data rate, frequent communication required, and often working densely populated areas. It seems the Indian MNOs are already eyeing up this sector. Vodafone Idea has piloted energy metering in four Indian cities on its NB-IoT network.

LoRa networks could modernize Indian agriculture, but the technology has yet to impact this sector. Its long range (15km) allows for minimal deployment, and agricultural use cases – sensing soil alkalinity, for example – do not require frequent communication between devices. Patchy cellular coverage in rural areas also makes unlicensed spectrum a more reliable choice.

There is potential for an immense scale of deployment, in a country which is the world’s second largest producer of fruit and vegetables – 43% of India is farmland. Yet while there is an awareness of the benefits of precision agriculture in India, this has not resulted in significant investment.

This has likely been influenced by the priorities of Narendra Modi’s government – modernization initiatives such as Smart City Mission and Swatch Bharat, a program to ‘clean up’ India. At present, almost all LoRaWAN coverage in India surrounds urban centers and the technology seems to be promoted as a primarily urban resource. Tata Communications’ network covered 45 cities as of June this year, while SenRa covered 50 as of September.

This has fueled LoRaWAN urban developments such as Tata’s deployment of 300 smart city lights in Jampshedpur, Jharkhand in 2018. The company set out plans to install 15,000 LoRaWAN-connected lights in the city by 2022.

If western markets are anything to go by, the arrival of NB-IoT in India is unlikely to hLT LoRa’s expansion within the next few years. MNOs in Europe have had to slowly court an ecosystem of consumers while unlicensed networks continue to expand their operations.

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