Vodafone boosts LPWAN in Americas with roaming deals

A handful of deals in the American licensed spectrum LPWAN (L-LPWAN) market combine to paint a promising vision of the future for the region. In the USA in particular, LoRaWAN adoption seems to have had the wind fall out of its sails, but it’s a far more vibrant market in Latin America, with Everynet in particular enjoying particular success.

Last week, Vodafone brokered two IoT-focused roaming deals with AT&T, to join their respective European and North American networks, and with América Móvil, to do the same in Latin America. The past few months have seen AT&T sign reciprocal roaming agreements with the three major Canadian MNOs, as well as with Orange for access to Europe – both for LTE Cat-M.

However, the latest AT&T deal has been signed to ensure AT&T customers can roam on an NB-IoT network, and vice versa. AT&T now looks to be quite well-rounded, when it comes to offering business customers access to foreign markets. For NB-IoT, the deal is a good pick-me-up, as the protocol seems to have lagged its L-LPWAN brother (sometimes better characterized as a rival, admittedly).

“Extending our collaboration with AT&T to offer NB-IoT roaming helps our customers to easily deploy their connected devices between the U.S. and Europe,” said Vinod Kumar, CEO of Vodafone Business. “We want to make technology adoption simpler for our customers to help them achieve their business outcomes and by pushing forward the standards and linking up our IoT network with AT&T’s, we’re doing just that.”

High value urban markets will be fine for L-LPWAN, but its higher costs, relative to Unlicensed alternatives, may restrict its ability to reach all the nooks and crannies in a country, when there are already quite clear gaps in regular LTE coverage maps (though NB-IoT does extend the range of existing 4G sites because of its spectrum band and radio optimization). Scale that out to multiple countries and the problem is compounded.

“For the IoT to live up to its promise, it must be global,” said Chris Penrose, SVP of advanced mobility and enterprise solutions at AT&T. “More and more of our enterprise customers are launching IoT applications across multiple countries. Working with Vodafone we can offer our customers simplified deployments to help scale their IoT plans across the USA and Europe.”

Returning to América Móvil, our understanding is that the MNO only has LTE-M coverage, and only in Mexico, where AT&T is a fierce rival. This is despite it being active in most of Latin America, usually under its Claro brand. As it stands, Vodafone seems to be getting the better end of this deal.

In Brazil, Telefónica has deployed LTE Cat-M and Cat-NB, and has Cat-M in Argentina too. In Mexico, AT&T and América Móvil have Cat-M. That’s the extent of coverage in Latin America, which is still a bit of a surprise, given the plentiful use cases that exist in the region – with its strong industrial and agricultural markets.

The GSMA’s coverage map is well worth a look, but it does illustrate the East-West divide, from a European perspective at least. Asia-Pacific and eastern Europe have flocked to just NB-IoT, while western Europe and the Americas are deploying both. The absence of any option in the Russia/CIS region and all of Africa and the Middle East (bar South Africa and Saudi Arabia) is striking. India is due to get NB-IoT next year, via Reliance Jio, which would accentuate this divide further.

However, map of public network operators supporting the main unlicensed alternative, LoRaWAN, paints a broadly similar picture, in terms of adoption. The main differences are that Mexico is not catered for in the Americas, while Africa and the Middle East gains Tunisia and Oman. Much of CIS and Africa don’t have any option, and it’s the same tale in South America – from a public network perspective at least, as there are plenty of live LoRaWAN networks in these ‘empty’ countries.

If public LoRaWAN networks were cropping up in places that L-LPWAN had not strayed, it would be clear evidence that price points were dictating business models. As it stands, there’s no clear narrative in this regard, but it is something that could change in the coming few quarters.

Also in the US, Sprint announced that its Curiosity IoT platform would now support LTE NB-IoT (see separate item), adding to the Cat-M option that it has had for a while now. Ericsson is a close partner, with the pair demonstrating the new capability at MWC Los Angeles, using Ericsson’s IoT Accelerator platform.

Verizon has announced an update for its own platform, ThingSpace, adding a new system-in-package (SiP) to the range of certified hardware. Nordic Semiconductor’s new nRF9160TM SiP is now available, providing both LTE Cat-M and NB-IoT, as well as GPS capabilities. Nordic claims this is one of the smallest and lowest power options available to purchase, and the expansion is significant, considering its background in Bluetooth. This is an incursion of sorts, into the territory usually held by the likes of Sequans, Altair and Qualcomm.

“Certification by Verizon is a major milestone for us and will provide a major boost to commercial confidence in the nRF9160, which has already proven to be incredibly popular with our customer base because of both its range of features and ease of use,” said Svein-Egil Nielsen, CTO of Nordic Semiconductor, the largest Bluetooth Low Energy (LE) chip vendor in the world.