The Many Flavors of Low-power Wide Area Network (LPWAN or LPWA)

The impending shut down of 2G networks creates confusion for organizations with varied industrial connectivity needs and the movement has created a window of opportunity for unlicensed low-powered wide area networking (LPWA) solutions like LoRaWAN, SigFox and others. “The Many Flavors of LPWA” takes a closer look at these new LPWA options, addressing their varied features and benefits to help organizations in deciding which one best meets their unique and varied requirements.

By Derek Wallace, MultiTech

The options for industrial connectivity are broad and growing, including analog, Ethernet, cellular, satellite, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and the up-and-coming Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) technologies, which seek to address key limitations of the others in order to better enable the growing Internet of Things, specifically: range, cost and battery life. While cellular operators are voluntarily shutting down the earliest 2G networks and driving M2M/IoT customers to not only upgrade their physical devices, but also purchase bandwidth beyond what is generally needed for M2M and Industrial IoT applications – 75% of which use less than one megabyte per month of data, according to James Brehm & Associates. The global carrier community is looking to variants of LTE and even forward years to 5G to address this disconnect. Unfortunately, from a practical perspective, these alternatives (LTE Category M and Narrow Band IoT [5G]) are still on the horizon in terms of immediate adoptability. This timing disconnect has created a window of opportunity for unlicensed LPWA networking solutions like LoRaWAN, SigFox and others. These solutions can run for years on batteries and operate in locations other technologies simply don’t reach. Plus, because they operate on unlicensed spectrum, they deliver device connectivity at a fraction of the cost of cellular or even analog wireless solutions.

What are your options?

Among LPWA options available today, the leader has yet to emerge. Multiple options are making names for themselves. They include LoRaWAN, Sigfox and RPMA (Ingenu, formerly OnRamp Wireless). Each offers long range and long battery life, but they have important differences which impact their suitability to particular purposes. Moreover, there are new offerings coming out from the cellular carriers including LTE Category M, as well as narrow-band IoT (5G). Each offers industrial connectivity option provides long range and long battery life, but they have important differences which impact their suitability to particular purposes.

Figure 1: A table diagram illustrating the difference in industrial connectivity options. These are all compared by a variety of features that indicate suitability for individual purposes. Source: MultiTech

A bigger pie.

To the casual observer, it may appear that the race is on to become the connection technology of choice, but a closer look reveals there is unlikely to be any clear winner takes all – as each available technology provides unique suitability for particular applications. It seems analysts agree, predicting solid growth across all available and emerging LPWA technologies.

Figure 2: A bar diagram depicting the growth of public connection by technology. There is a relatively even distribution in growth between the top providers, leaving no single leader of emerging LPWA technologies. Analysts expect equal growth between all options.

Ultimately, these technologies are very complimentary as each is suited to a subset of applications. Sigfox, for example, is ideal for simple sensor harvesting where its inherent limitations are acceptable due to the small size of the data being transferred and the need for optimal power effiency. Ingenu offers a broader bit rate and tighter control, but requires antenna diversity at the edge due to the propagation of 2.4GHz creating an up-front CAPEX be effectively absorbed at the margin. LoRaWAN resides comfortable in the middle, providing higher bandwith and a faster data rate than Sigfox at a slightly shorter range and smaller link budget than Ingenue, but with a lower up front cost. And while Sigfox and Ingenue are both on the path to building ubiquitous nationwide networks, LoRa offers the ability, for those who prefer it, to deploy a private network to cover a campus, farm, refinery, etc. as well as the option to work with public network service providers.

As illustrated Figure 3, SigFox and LoRa, to some degree, occupy their own position suitable for low data rate applications, allowing adopters to choose just right coverage at just the right price. Similarly, for mission-critical, real time data requiring high bandwidth, the choice is simple. So what are the key decision points for those technologies which seemingly overlap?

Figure 3: A diagram giving total chipset shipments by technology type. The difference in data totals is credit to these technologies having complimentary qualities. They can be applied to a number of applications and are not necessarily competing for the same purpose. Source: ABI Research


One important consideration when choosing between licensed and unlicensed options is how tolerant your application can be to latency. Because unlicensed technologies operate on shared spectrum, they are vulnerable to interference from other applications leveraging the same spectrum. Even for low data rate applications, if continuous availability is critical, licensed and dedicated spectrum is a must.

Figure 4: A chart sorting technologies by data bit rate. The chart illustrates which technologies occupy a position alone making for an easy choice. In addition, it displays which technologies overlap, creating a more difficult choice for application. Key decision points include availability and expense management.

Expense management

Another consideration, depending on the adopter’s level of in-house networking expertise, may be whether capitalizing the deployment makes sense. Certain unlicensed technologies enable enterprises to set up their own network, making deployment a one-time capital expense with low to no recurring costs. On the other hand, a choice to go with a cellular carrier for LPWA comes with ongoing monthly fees in perpetuity, but takes all the burden of network management off the hands of the adopting company.

Finally, applications which leverage multiple connectivity technologies can provide profound value with an improved return-on-investment, as they can be more flexible than strictly mobile or fixed applications and extend geographically beyond the limitations of a certain carrier. Add a combination of related applications, and the value grows exponentially. For example, you walk by a connected sign. The fact that you walked by that sign may be used by another thing, (that may or may not be wireless) somewhere else for a different purpose or at a different time. That’s the coming evolution of IoT – the spider-web or pond ripple effect, driving the use of fractal-like sociological patterns to simultaneously implement both personal and mass dynamically adaptive marketing algorithms. It is easy to imagine load balancing concession stands at a ballpark by noting which foods or drinks have people in line buying them, triggering a reinforcement of other options via signage to drive people to concession stands that are less busy offering different products like beer vs. soda. Overall sales rate increases and the customers are happier having waited less time in line, a win-win.

About the author:

Derek brings 20 years of product management experience to his role as Director of Product Management for MultiTech. He has worked across multiple parts of the value chain and around the world. He is responsible for the entire MultiTech portfolio, including product lifecycle and management process. He oversees a growing team focused on defining and launching the products that will achieve the most business value for our customers as well as MultiTech.