For any wireless technology targeting applications that cross borders, roaming is one of the most essential but difficult capabilities to achieve. It remains a key advantage for the cellular industry against unlicensed spectrum alternatives – the painfully won, but well-established roaming systems driven by the GSMA in the early years of cellular. The WiFi segment is global and the Wireless Broadband Alliance has driven roaming technologies into public WLANs, but seamless roaming remains limited. For the unlicensed low power WAN (U-LPWAN) system, roaming – and its corollary, interoperability between different networks and devices – is in its infancy.
Two years ago, Orange kicked off an initiative to encourage roaming over LoRaWAN, the leading U-LPWAN technology, and this was a significant boost to the platform, which also continues to demonstrate multivendor interoperability across the ecosystem. However, LoRa will always be chasing licensed (L-LPWAN) solutions such as LTE-M and NB-IoT in this regard, as highlighted by a new agreement on LTE-M roaming, also spearheaded by Orange (which is using a combination of licensed and unlicensed technologies for M2M networks in its home market of France).
There are two LTE technologies targeted at the IoT. LTE-M, which was the first to be deployed in the USA, is higher power consumption than NB-IoT and targets applications based on larger devices such as headsets; while NB-IoT competes with LoRaWAN, Sigfox and others in the ultra-low power, sensor-based sector. Most European operators have led their M2M roll-outs with this technology but Orange launched its LTE-M services earlier this year and now provides this capability in France and Romania with Belgium, Slovakia, Spain and Poland coming later this year.
The new agreement sees Orange working with AT&T, KPN and Swisscom to enable roaming across their LTE-M networks in the USA and Europe, which could help fulfil the GSMA’s prediction that Europe will see LTE-M coverage over the whole region by the end of 2020. Certainly, roaming will be a major incentive for operators, especially those whose reach does not extend over multiple countries directly, to adopt LTE-M. It will also be seen as essential by some multinational businesses, though alternatives to direct roaming are emerging, including cloud-based multi-network hubs such as Nokia Wing, which provide interworking between different operators and technologies.
“Enabling access to roaming on LTE-M for our customers is a clear priority for Orange. We’re proud to be among the first operators to deliver such a roaming capability to our IoT customers and more widely to our partners across this market,” said Didier Lelièvre, director of mobile wholesale and interconnection at the French telco.
“More and more of our enterprise customers require global capabilities as they deploy IoT devices and applications. These LTE-M roaming agreements help meet that demand and make it easier for businesses around the world to benefit from the power of a globalized IoT,” said John Wojewoda, AVP, global connections management at AT&T.
On the U-LPWAN side, different technologies are suited to different use cases and business models, including private networks, but in the public environment, LoRaWAN looks to be emerging as the leader from a fragmented space. The LoRa Alliance recently hailed its technology as the “global de facto LPWAN standard” for IoT – at least for those without access to licensed spectrum in some or all markets. The Alliance particularly singled out IoT backbones for smart cities, and the utilities market, as drivers of LoRa adoption.
With hindsight, 2017 was the year when LoRa began to show its potential to be an international network. First, Orange spearheaded a testing initiative to establish a standard way to roam between different providers’ networks, starting with LoRa. Trials conducted between Orange, Bouygues and Proximus of Belgium, under the auspices of the LoRa Alliance, will form the basis for a standards framework for roaming.
Then, in the USA, LoRa service provider Senet launched what it called its Global LPWA Virtual Network (LVN). The LVN is a cloud-based platform for connecting LoRa networks and building new services on top. Not only could this support interoperability between different physical LoRaWANs, but allow non-network operators to connect to the system and build their own IoT services, paying fees based on network usage or numbers of devices. Similar cloud-based hubs are starting to emerge in other sectors and regions to lower barriers to entry and to interoperability.