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MWC Roundup: LPWAN

LoRa Alliance – 6 core verticals, proprietary means best of breed

Next up was the LoRa Alliance, where we spoke to CEO Donna Moore and Emma Pearce, Director of Marketing, about the recent history of the group – which had just passed 100 operator deployments. A larger piece will outline our current thoughts on the LPWAN sector, in a show that featured little in the way of branding to suggest that the MNO community was particularly interested in LTE Cat-M or Cat-NB, and where Sigfox did not have a booth for the second year running.

Moore explained that there had been a big shift from deployments that were using proprietary versions of LoRa to those that were using the open LoRaWAN spec – the standard that the alliance is actually pushing. The alliance is now focusing on 6 key areas, in order to have a unified marketing and communications push – Smart City, Smart Buildings, IIoT, Utilities, Agriculture, and Logistics.

Broadly, we were told that the last four months had seen major scaling deployments announced, with over 80mn active LoRaWAN devices out in the wild. We also pushed on whether Semtech’s ownership of the radio-layer IP was a good thing, for a standard that is so keen to position itself as an ‘open’ standard. Moore explained that from her experience in the DLNA standards world, it was actually a very good thing that Semtech had such control over the chips, as it meant that the best-of-breed chips were being used by the early adopters.

The risk of a poor implementation of a standard damaging initial adoption or enthusiasm for a standard seemed palpable here, with Moore pointing out that most adopters are going to be paying to use a standard in the FRAND licensing agreements in standards organizations – and so it is not exactly a problem if you are paying that fee just to use the radio chips, if the rest of the upper layers are free. This is a fair point, and until we reach hippy-dippy-techno-socialism, is probably going to remain a constant undertow to our discussions in the LPWAN sector.

The Alliance is also keen to point out that while L-LPWAN vendors are talking about ‘by 2020,’ in terms of their network performance, the LoRaWAN ecosystem is already able to provide such capabilities. It was strongly hinted that a large US retailer was about to make a major LoRa adoption announcement too.

Semtech – gulf between prop-LoRa and LoRaWAN closing fast

It wouldn’t be a meeting with Semtech without us asking if there were plans afoot to open up the PHY patents, but Olivier Beaujard, LoRa Ecosystem Senior Director, and Marc Pegulu, VP IoT Product Marketing and Strategy, were on hand to argue that tight control over this IP means that the wider go-to-market strategy is much more efficient – that there is far less testing, and interoperability questions to be considered, when there are fewer chip designs in play.

Of course, Semtech’s control over the radio IP underpinning LoRa (both the proprietary versions and the LoRa Alliance backed open variant LoRaWAN), has been a stick with which the company has been beaten with by its LPWAN rivals. But, the LoRa Alliance itself will point out, Semtech still only has one vote on the board, and you can get LoRa modules from Microchip for less than what Semtech will sell you just the chip.

Another sticking point has been the fragmentation between the open LoRaWAN ecosystem and the private LoRa configurations. The latter’s initial popularity can be seen as a hinderance to the wider ecosystem, although those adopters might argue that they can do what they please with the chips that they’ve paid for.

Things are changing on this front, however. Of the approximate 80mn LoRa chips that have been shipped, the majority are currently just LoRa, and not LoRaWAN. However, of new shipments, the proportion of proprietary implementations is shrinking – down from about 80% of chips to around 60% now, and on track to shrink quicker. In addition, Semtech ‘would prefer’ it if customers went for LoRaWAN, and isn’t super enthusiastic about supporting the proprietary implementations.

When pressed about the rivalry with L-LPWAN, the Semtech reps pointed out that of the 100 LoRaWAN operators, 25 of them were also cellular MNOs. On the notion that these large players have been quite quiet, it was noted that the startups have been much louder in public because that’s part of being a startup. The big guys know what they are doing, but they are not as visible, from the outside at least.

As for risks to the LoRa ecosystem, the ongoing US-China trade war was pointed too, as particularly problematic because of China’s position as one of the largest buyers of LoRa equipment. In addition, the speed that business applications can shift to serious volumes was something that the ecosystem has to be wary of, as an immature ecosystem can’t keep up with that sort of demand. On this point, Semtech believes that the ecosystem is mature but not yet scaled, and that things should look significantly different in the next couple of years.

Altair – the drive to make cellular simpler than WiFi

The past year has been a crazy one, according to Altair’s Dima Feldman, Head of Product Management. The Sony subsidiary’s VP Business Development and Marketing, Ilan Reingold, added that tons of new use cases were emerging, for its L-LPWAN designs.

Altair has been working on simplifying cellular IoT for its customers, looking to reduce development times. To this end, Feldman believes that its chipset is probably the most integrated product on the market, thanks to the amount of components included in the design – with the GNSS silicon being perhaps the best example of this. If most, if not all, of your components come from one vendor, you should have an easier

The goal is to sell a system that is simpler than WiFi, where a device does not need to be configured once it has been deployed – that it simply boots up and connects, and doesn’t need to be manually connected to a network. Apparently, 100% of Altair’s customers are asking for eSIM, but despite it being able to simplify designs, eSIM is still a complex process. Altair believes it can be much more price competitive than legacy SIMs, but like Gemalto, is aware of the TCO consideration.

Reingold said that there is plenty to go around among LPWAN rivals, but that eventually there will be segmentation between the vertical markets. For large public networks, Altair firmly believes that L-LPWAN will emerge as dominant, but private networks and rural deployments are open for U-LPWAN.

We asked about the ratio of LTE Cat-1, Cat-M, and Cat-NB in Altair’s sales. Around 60% to 70% are Cat-M, with around 20% Cat-1, and the remainder being Cat-NB. China is a major global customer for Cat-NB, but it is an insular and allocated market that is heavily subsidized by its government. In time, it might cut funding, as well as release licenses for Cat-M, but for now, Altair is not pursuing the region.

Altair also stressed that dual-mode capabilities are going to be necessary for devices, where they are able to switch from Cat-NB to Cat-M in order to more power efficiently download software updates. On pure Cat-NB, even using delta images of firmware to cut bandwidth requirements, Altair says that retaining battery life while performing such OTA updates is impossible. Altair stresses that it is prudent to have such an updating mechanism, in case the transition to 5G networks is not flawless.

Ruckus – still has LoRa, still not seeing much pull for it from in-building crowd

We touched-based with Ruckus again, to catch up on its very interesting LoRa offering, which we discovered at last year’s MWC. Unfortunately, Mark Grodzinsky, Senior Director and GM IoT, said that not much had actually happened, despite the very powerful potential for the LPWAN technology – piggy-backing on the enterprise-grade wireless network vendor. Ruckus’ core WiFi business could prove the Trojan horse that lets LoRa walk in the front door of nearly every enterprise WiFi installation.

To this end, it was a little disappointing to hear that Ruckus customers weren’t exactly clamoring for the feature, but it was something we had anticipated in the wake of last year’s show – where almost no one spoke of the opportunity provided by these vendors, when it came to sneaking LPWAN options into established networked environments.

Our conversation moved to the in-building technologies that were showing promise, where Bluetooth and Zigbee were finding traction – with the connected locks from Assa Abloy featuring three different radio technologies. Mark Davis, VP Product Marketing, noted that there was a tension of sorts between the kind of non-WiFi networks that are essentially laid over an existing WiFi network, and the more closely integrated networks that can be combined with a Ruckus-type deployment.

Some of those networks are prime integration opportunities, as they are ‘solution-centric,’ in so far as they know exactly what sort of problem they intend to solve, and so would play nicely with the Ruckus WiFi infrastructure. This is in stark contrast to the sort of customer that just demands ‘IoT’ but can’t actually explain why it is they want this particular feature.

For the in-building offerings, Ruckus sees hospitality, MDU, and education as particularly opportune markets, with connected entry, surveillance cameras, and security as prime offerings, as well as location services and tracking. There are also benefits to be had in tracking worker activity, on the back of Bluetooth or Zigbee hardware, or even providing panic-button features for workers. To these ends, Ruckus is trying to stay as open as possible on the radio side of things, and hoping to provide enough flexibility for its SIs and VARs to create IoT offerings on the back of Ruckus’ own platforms. This year will be a ramp-year, according to the pair.

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