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6 September 2019

Pod Group USA CEO eyes turbulent LPWAN market, predicts MVNO downfalls

Pod Group’s offering of custom IoT connectivity, provided by its divisions that are focused on each specific required piece of that puzzle, has taken good shape over the past few years. Speaking to Pod Group USA’s CEO Sam Colley, we looked to get an update on progress and the shape of the market, particularly with the advent of nanosatellites and the recent pricing announcements on both sides of the pond.

Colley noted that there still aren’t eUICC (eSIM) options for Cat-NB, and the lack of SMS capabilities means that in order to perform device profile swaps, you actually need to send multiple messages. This necessitates having dual-mode devices, and Colley says that mass deployment of ‘simple Cat-NB’ is still not really an option.

He adds that the market is realizing that the number of Cat-NB applications are not as broad as people had initially hoped, that 2G applications don’t neatly translate directly to Cat-NB capabilities. Pricing is not helping this matter, as Colley says that the Cat-NB pricing is still pretty much on par with LTE Cat 1, and that Cat-M still has far more traction in the USA than Cat-NB.

To this end, around 90% of the tracking opportunities that Colley sees are Cat-M, with only one customer that Colley can recall using Cat-NB – to track truck trailers. In the last few nine months, 90% of leads are moving to Cat-M, with a few looking at Cat 1. Colley notes that most are not bothering with dual-mode Cat-NB and Cat-M modules, and no one is using 3G in the US for these applications.

Colley talked of one customer using a ‘simple IoT’ product, where Cat-NB was the better fit than Cat-M, in terms of power usage and a lower message overhead. Here, retrofit projects are well suited to Cat-NB, especially where you don’t have to replace the device itself – using a Sequans chipset. Colley says this represented a to-market cost of around $25-$30, which he says is far lower than what the alternatives can manage today.

Also mentioned was that T-Mobile don’t yet understand what the cost of hosting a Cat-NB SIM on its network is, and so don’t even know their price floor. Colley says that until they reach volume deployments, they won’t know what their price limits are. To this end, you will note, the chicken-or-egg problem is just being reinforced, as MNOs such as T-Mobile can’t cut prices to attract interest, until they reach sufficient numbers of active devices, which they won’t do until the prices are good enough, and so on.

The conversation moved to U-LPWAN, and Colley notes that PodM2M was previously working with Sigfox on a dual-mode Cat-NB module, Sigfox’s approach of self-install dongles and base stations suggests that it is trying to become more flexible, like LoRaWAN. The firm did have a customer that was interested in that approach, but Colley then pointed out that the banding issues with L-LPWAN spectrum are complicating things – with around 27 bands globally being used. In 3G, a quad-band module was probably sufficient for global deployments, but this problem has got much worse in L-LPWAN.

PodM2M doesn’t engage much with the LoRaWAN ecosystem, so Colley thinks he probably doesn’t have the most accurate opinion on it. He imagines they run into the same sorts of problems that Sigfox does, and it was at this point that we asked for his thoughts on the new crop of nanosatellite options in the marketplace.

Colley quite likes the space, and PodM2M is already talking to a potential customer that has ambitions to be a direct rival to Sigfox and LoRaWAN. He said that the cost of entry to the market is not that significant, and that even the early-stage capabilities of a few messages per day are plenty for many customers. With the huge coverage advantages, integrating such networks into PodM2M’s platform would be the goal, but he notes that it remains to be seen how the upstarts affect the incumbent satellite pricing, and that delays and price wars will mean that only the more feature-rich companies survive.

To this end, Colley says that this desire to crack ‘Mass IoT’ has been one of the main failures of the IoT at large – scalability, security, interoperability, and standardization, are all still up in the air, and it is not clear how the business model for non-WiFi consumer IoT offerings won’t lumber people with subscriptions.

While U-LPWAN definitely kicked the GSMA community into gear, Colley says that this problem remains uncracked because of the global coverage problems – even though it is now clear that there’s an awful lot of market being missed out on. It is also Colley’s view that Ingenu was the best U-LPWAN technology, and most scalable, but that it made the mistake of trying to build the network before it had customers. He believes things could have been very different if it took a more scalable approach.

From PodM2M’s perspective, it certainly doesn’t mind nanosatellites exploding into the market, as it has built its platform to be connectivity agnostic. The company itself is seeing considerable growth, particularly in North America. Colley is interested to see how Europe shakes out with Cat-NB and Cat-M, but notes that on that front, there is far less competition in the US – where prices are exorbitant compared to Europe.

There are still lots of concerns for the market, especially for firms that are essentially just reselling SIM cards from the MNOs. There have been a good few years for those vendors, but Colley believes that many MVNOs are going to struggle for profitability in the next few years.

Consolidation between connectivity and software partners is also imminent, and module makers are also getting into these spaces too – looking to unite the different siloed elements of the platform. However, Colley says that the market is still very proprietary, and that it needs to become more open. This would be a challenge and opportunity, and Colley thinks the more advanced MVNOs are the only ones that will be able to keep pace, as the scrappier ones fall away.