LPWAN enthusiasm wanes at MWC, IoT notably behind-the-scenes

It seems that the LPWAN sector is acutely suffering from the same disease that has afflicted ‘the IoT’ – marketers have lost interest, and the term no longer adorns the booths of many of those in attendance at MWC. This is a good thing, as fewer distractions should mean better productivity, and the marketers have already moved onto AI, blockchain, and soon quantum computing, with 5G proving the current buzzword de jour.

But it’s not just the booths of the very big firms that have struck the term from their tradeshow stands. There were a lot less LPWAN-focused exhibitors at MWC this year, and Hall 8.1 that plays host to them, is now much less IoT-focused. More space has been put to bars and seating, dispersing the IoT crowd. Similarly, the Hall 4 Innovation City is now a 5G affair, instead of being IoT-dominated as it has been in previous years. Most telling perhaps is Cisco’s decision not to put its Jasper wing in its traditional corner.

Of course, in our discussions with them, the LPWAN vendors are rather enthusiastic. It seems that there’s still plenty of space for both U-LPWAN and L-LPWAN, and if the two sectors consolidate along distinct use cases as we anticipate, then it is going to be a long time until they actually start having to carve chunks out of each other.

Perhaps the more pressing concern is that of the satellite community, where a swathe of new IoT hopefuls have secured funding to launch their own nanosatellite constellations, with the larger communications infrastructure satellite providers also turning their attention to low-power IoT connections.

This sector would compete with both LPWAN camps, and of course could cause great upset. Choosing satellite could bypass concerns about capex investments in terrestrial network buildouts, and even if a LoRa deployment on a farm might set you back two base stations, that’s a cost that the satellite types could look to compete on.

The cost of the end-devices might be a bigger factor, as the nanosatellite community hasn’t yet got to volumes that might drive the BOM price down. However, when viewing a complete application, the connectivity side of things is usually a small fraction of the total, and so one should consider the total cost of ownership instead of just BOM and the connectivity fee.

So while LPWAN seems to be heads-down and cracking on with the task at hand, and new satellite networks look set to start rushing into the market, it remains nonetheless a little disheartening to see the big players at MWC moving on so quickly from the IoT.

Sure, this is part of the natural evolution of the trend that we have written about at length, where the technologies gradually appear via incremental product evolution, rather than a fiery and glorious IoT evolution. But to this end, the flagship MWC booths seemed particularly devoid of IoT demos or presentations.

Instead, it was all about 5G, and many of these demos were rather dull unless you are very interested in particular networking appliances or functions and found the ones deep enough to sink your teeth into. Many of the more general 5G demos weren’t exactly convincing, in proving the fundamental difference between the new technologies and the old.

And of course, as is the case with MWC, the largest queues were to see the latest gimmick that the smartphone vendors have glommed on to – foldable phones, this year. Similarly, Mercedes drew in big crowds thanks to a truck it had parked on its booth, where you could wait in line to take a photo of yourself at the wheel.

So from the IoT perspective, MWC was quite subdued. The largest vendors have quietly integrated such offerings into their wider portfolios, waiting until their customers are sufficiently far down the digital transformation road to push the new-fangled IoT suite onto them as a value-add.

Quite a few of our meetings opened with a question about the community’s mood for IoT, and most answered that customers weren’t clamoring for the trend. We still seem ahead of the adoption curve, pre-empting an inflection point where mainstream adoption becomes a reality.

5G adoption might change things, but again, we’ve a bone to pick with a lot of the demos on show – there were far too many robotic arms. We find it very hard to see a wireless system replacing a wired one in a setting like an automated factory or production line. Privacy and security concerns are perhaps most pressing, but the inertia that MNOs are going to have to overcome lies in the operational managers and their acute skepticism that switching from Ethernet or Serial to a wireless protocol is an upgrade. That’s a hard sell, and even having a private 4G or 5G network is not enough to convince such hardened skeptics, based on what we find in our research.