T-Mobile USA announces NB-IoT tariffs, but LoRa is undaunted

The world of low power wide area networks (LPWANs) has started the year in turmoil. T-Mobile USA has become the latest in a very short line of operators to reveal national pricing schemes for these services, bringing a small dose of clarity to a very immature business model. Other operators are still focusing heavily on unlicensed spectrum options like LoRa, which is being expanded significantly by Proximus in Belgium. But another cheerleader for unlicensed LPWAN, Sigfox, has started 2018 with major cutbacks and question marks over its future.

In the US, T-Mobile announced the country’s first Narrowband-IoT (NB-IoT) service plan for low power connected devices. Consumers can access the network – which is deployed on existing LTE infrastructure and spectrum – for $6 a year for up to 12MB per connected device. TMO claims this is only 10% of the cost of Verizon’s IoT offerings, which are based on another LTE standard for machine-to-machine applications, Cat-M.

TMO, clearly trying to echo the ‘Uncarrier’ themes of its disruptive, low cost mobile broadband tariffs, said: “NB-IoT is much more affordable than Cat-M and is already the globally preferred standard to power the rapidly expanding world of IoT applications. Because it can operate in guard bands—the network equivalent of driving down the shoulders on the highway—NB-IoT carries data with greater efficiency and performance and doesn’t compete with other data traffic for network resources.”

The US’s third MNO ran trials of NB-IoT last summer in Las Vegas, using 200 kHz of its AWS spectrum, and working with Qualcomm and Ericsson. By contrast, AT&T and Verizon are both focusing initially on LTE-M. AT&T has deployed this technology nationwide and in Mexico, though all the US majors expect to support both NB-IoT and LTE-M in time. The technologies are optimal for different use cases, with LTE-M being rather more power hungry but supporting higher data rates, making it suited for consumer M2M devices such as wearables, while NB-IoT enables low cost wide area deployment at very low cost and power, for services such as those in smart cities.

However, supporters of LoRa, Sigfox and others boast of even lower costs – especially, of course, for service providers without licensed spectrum – and even lower power levels. Semtech, the main supplier of LoRa chips, has announced a new reference design for its technology, claiming ultra-low power consumption, smaller form factors and longer range wireless connectivity – which could help LoRa proponents enable new use cases for the technology.

Semtech claims that LPWAN is going through a major shift, from trials to large scale deployments in smart cities, buildings, healthcare, logistics, and agriculture – more mature and advanced chipsets will be required to serve these large volume orders. On that note, Semtech has recently said that it has doubled LoRa revenue to $50m, and expects to exceed $100m in 2018.

The new LoRa radio extends the technology’s link budget by 20%, with a 50% reduction in receiver current (to 4.5mA) – meaning a claimed 30% extension of battery life. The design also comes with a +22dBm option, enabling the radio to shout that bit louder and connect with gateways further away.

Semtech claims the extended connectivity range also allows deep indoor and outdoor penetration. Penetration and coverage have been a persistent issue for LPWAN technologies, potential customers citing these issues when walking away from large deployments, after tests didn’t meet expectations. If Semtech has significantly improved LoRa in both these areas, it could bring potential customers back to the table.

Semtech has also added a new command interface that it says simplifies the radio configuration and shortens development time, needing only 10 lines of code to transmit or receive a packet. The LoRa radio form factor has also been improved, with the new footprint 45% smaller than the current generation – measuring just 4mm x 4mm. It is now being manufactured in a 90nm process, down from 180nm.

The chipset will also support FSK modulation, so that it is backwards compatible with legacy protocols that are migrating to LoRaWAN – offering dual-protocol deployments to gradually transition devices across. A new frequency spreading factor has been added, to better support dense LoRa networks – important for the protocol to scale.

The chipset design has a frequency range of 150-960 MHz, according to Semtech, enough to enable LoRa devices to access all global unlicensed sub-GHz spectrum bands – a strong selling point for developers. There will be a version optimized for Chinese bands, the 22dBm SX1268, as well as the standard 22dBm SX1262, and the 15dBm SX1261.

LoRa was also present at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) last week. US LoRa operator Senet was providing the show with a network, in partnership with Kerlink and TekTelic, and was showing off what it called the first demo of LoRa 1.1’s roaming capabilities, via the TekTelic Kona Macro Gateways. TrackNet was also demonstrating its LoRa-powered tracking tags, on the Senet network.

One of the MNOs which, despite the presence of NB-IoT, is remaining loyal to LoRa, is Proximus, which is dramatically stretching the coverage of its LoRa network, in partnership with Kerlink, which is supplying its Wirnet base stations. The original Proximus LoRa network launched in 2015 with 130 of those stations, and by the end of this year, that will have increased to over 1,000 stations.

Joke Tisaun, Proximus’s IoT product manager, said in a statement: “This new IoT network has already stimulated innovations and opened the door to new business models. This is the case for some interesting applications we support today, like measuring the fullness of glass containers in order to optimize pick-up routes and enhance customer experience. In addition, we launched a project with the biggest gas supplier in Belgium, where we will monitor the gas tanks of people in their homes, to improve the service they can offer to their end customers.”

In other LPWAN news, Sigfox has announced a deal with China Unicom that is valued at $360m, making it the company’s largest contract to date. The specifics of the agreement, in terms of the number of devices or what application they will be used in, have not yet been made public.

Speaking to EETimes, Sigfox’s CMO, Laetitia Jay, said that Sigfox had a presence in 42 countries, serving 2m active devices – with 10m in the pipeline.

However, it has not all been good news for the French company. After a great deal of reporting that it was losing staff and making cuts, it confirmed that its US chief, Allen Proithis, has left the company and that it did not reach its network coverage goals for 2017 in the US, where it is building a national network to support a wide range of low speed, ultra-low power M2M services from third party providers.

Sigfox told FierceWireless: “Sigfox has made the decision to part ways with Allen Proithis, president of Sigfox North America. This was a strategic decision made in October 2017 to take Sigfox through the next phase of our evolution in the US market, and there was a transition plan in place for this change.”

Kristi Mason, director of Sigfox’s North American business, added in the same email: “While we did not reach our anticipated 40% population coverage in 2017, we did reach other milestones which we will announce later this month, including network densification in key regions. As with any fast-growth start-up, we pivoted to react to customer demands, growing out our network in regions that were less populous, but key to our customers and partners, such as the Permian Basin.”