US cable TV eyes up LoRa, offers towerless portfolio diversification

At MWC, George Kakatsakis, VP of CableLabs’ advanced technology group, confirmed that CableLabs has built a small LoRa network to examine whether the LPWAN protocol is a new business opportunity for cablecos. The network, in Boulder and Denver, Colorado, where CableLabs is based, includes base stations and back-end systems.

As a cable industry consortium, CableLabs essentially gets to decide industry standards for the cable TV market. The non-profit it probably best known for the DOCSIS spec, which provides broadband over cable lines, but also signs off on things like the WiFi standard for cable Consumer Premises Equipment (CPE).

This oversight would mean that CableLabs could end up defining the LoRa requirements for cablcos, writing the spec that would incorporate LoRa connections into CPE. CableLabs has been running its small LoRa network for about a year, looking determine whether it makes sense for cablecos to launch their own LoRa networks.

LoRa would most likely be used as part of a smart home play, and it would be strange for it to be rolled out as a way to connect the set tops themselves, given that DOCSIS is a thing. Consequently, set tops and/or home gateways would likely become ad-hoc LoRa gateways, as a means of quickly rolling out a LoRa network to cover a cable footprint – without having to deploy towers.

Of course, you would likely get a better performing network if you were to go the tower route, as you would be able to optimize antenna positioning to achieve the best coverage. However, putting a LoRa access point in even a low proportion of your subscriber base would provide a quick and dirty LoRa network – backhauled by the broadband connection provided by cable.

The LoRa footprint would allow the operator to push smart home services, as part of a quad-play or quint-play offering, bundled on top of the broadband and TV offering. Once adopted, such an offering would make the customer much less likely to churn, as they would have to return all of the leased smart home devices that were provided as part of their monthly package.

However, the cableco might also be interested in selling access to the LoRa network to other businesses. Applications like home metering, asset tracking, or smart parking could be served by a cableco with sufficient coverage, pitched at business, enterprise, or government customers looking for a low-cost network for a region-specific application.

In such a model, the cableco would be competing with the MNOs, but while those MNOs are currently better suited to national projects, a cableco-LoRa network would likely remain very competitive on price – as long as its target customers aren’t looking for a network that could roam a few states or towns over.

The balancing issue will be the cost of overhauling CPE designs to incorporate the LoRa gateways. Even if the LoRa functionality was provided by a peripheral device, a bit like the early WiFi bridges that linked set tops to home networks, it seems reasonable to assume that a cableco could cover a town with enough LoRa bandwidth for less than the cost of arranging tower deals and installations. Again, this would be a quick and dirty deployment, and far from optimum performance, but it would act as a gateway to diversifying into potential lucrative business agreements.

Back in October, Comcast announced an agreement with Semtech, the company that owns the LoRa PHY IP, launching its machineQ venture to explore the possibilities of LoRa. Comcast said it was launching trial networks in Philadelphia and San Francisco, with wider deployments over the course of the next couple of years, depending on the success of the trail.

machineQ will initially focus on utility metering, environmental monitoring, and asset tracking. Comcast is slowly coming to terms with the fact that it is now more of an ISP than a cable provider, and is looking to leverage its rather large fiver networks in the US – as backhaul for IoT services, as well as things like WiFi services to mobile customers.

In such deployments, the cablecos would be competing with the MNOs, who are in the very early stages of deploying the LTE rivals to the unlicensed LPWAN protocols – called LTE Cat-M1, and NB-IoT, under the umbrella-term LTE-M. The cable companies would also be going up against the likes of Sigfox and Ingenu, which are deploying their own LPWAN networks at a global scale, as well as from dedicated LoRa network operators like Senet and Actility, and MNOs that are turning their attention to LoRa, like Orange, Swisscom, and SK Telecom.

This week, we spoke to TrackNet, a company that has just launched Tabs, a child safety and home security platform that uses a LoRa gateway in the home to monitor GPS-wearables and sensors. CEO Hardy Schmidbauer described the approach as inside-out, as TrackNet is looking to build home coverage first to provide wider-area coverage, without having to rent space on a tower or install your own RAN infrastructure.

The deployment model for Tabs means that homes and day-care centers (or any other building, by way of a WiFi-connected LoRa gateway) would be able to provide location and security alerts on a low-cost network – cheap enough that TrackNet is able to sell Tabs in an upfront-only model, avoiding the monthly costs that Schmidbauer says are off-putting to consumers.

This inside-out model is similar to the potential cableco build-out, and TrackNet is having integration discussions with Senet, a North American LoRa network operator, and Comcast, to give its Tabs a wider network reach. In the EU, TrackNet is looking at operator partnerships too, and noted that European operators are eager for smart home devices like Taps to sell in their retail stores.

Schmidbauer says that the inside-out approach can reduce the need for towers by 70-80%, which saves a huge amount of capex for a startup such as TrackNet. For cablecos looking to use a similar model, they might be able to avoid towers entirely, if they can get enough gateways into their customer homes.

The CEO noted that the main challenge for LoRa roaming isn’t the technology, rather it’s the business model – working out how to share revenues between networks, or charge on a per-use basis in a way that makes business sense.