Next-Generation Connectivity: How Will LPWA Technology Impact Existing and Future IoT Deployments?

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4Q 2021 | IN-6340

Next-generation connectivity technologies are expected to create disruption in the IoT space, with NB-IoT and Cat-M leading the transformation of IoT solutions.

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Why Are NB-IoT and Cat-M Causing Disruptions?


Narrowband–Internet of Things (NB-IoT) and Category-M (CAT-M) are both next-gen technologies compared with LTE/4G. They have Massive Machine-Type Communication (mMTC) network connectivity standards. NB-IoT and Cat-M are similar because of their use in applications that do not require a low latency response within milliseconds—unlike real-time response applications that are served by ultrareliable low-latency communication network standards. A key function of some mMTC connectivity standards like NB-IoT is the ability to work deep indoors. NB-IoT also provides connectivity several meters underground. A differentiating factor of LTE for machines/Cat-M1 is that it can run on existing 4G/LTE network infrastructures as CAT-M is delivered by performing a series of software upgrades on the existing infrastructure of mobile network operators. While a key benefit of NB-IoT and CAT-M is their ability to preserve battery life—an improvement in comparison with Cat-1/LTE cellular technologies—NB-IoT has higher data throughput and improved latency compared with Low Range (LoRa). However, this comes at the expense of battery life, with LoRa retaining a marginal advantage. Another difference is that, unlike LoRa Wide-Area Networks (LoRaWANs), both NB-IoT and CAT-M can work on devices (sensors, actuators, and trackers) without having to connect to a gateway; however, LoRaWAN requires gateways. This is important due to the potential impact of gateway installation on costs that may affect return on investment.

What Impact Are LPWA Standards Having on Existing IoT Deployments?


In some application segments like outdoor asset tracking, LoRa works well, given that it is optimized for outdoor use when the tracker is in motion. Thus, it remains an ideal solution for location-based tracking, unlike NB-IoT, which is more suitable for stationary objects like meters and sensors—although gateways add to deployment costs in nonindustrial deployments as they do not require industrial protocol translation, and so gateways wouldn’t be a requirement. However, the upfront cost of investing in gateways may still hold. This is due to LoRa modules being lower in per unit cost than NB-IoT and CAT-M modules because these modules that are based on the new technologies are relatively more expensive, although the higher price tag is expected to compress in the future. Nonindustrial cases where LoRa can excel goes beyond asset tracking and includes agriculture, based on LoRa’s performance capabilities in an outdoor rural environment, while NB-IoT excels in stationary, dense, and urban environments.

In the Industrial IoT (IIoT) domain, many legacy systems that leverage Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) that connect to human machine interface/supervisory control and data acquisition systems are connected to a gateway in order to perform industrial protocol translation. In essence, industrial protocol translation means converting factory process metrics from the manufacturing floor into a form that can be communicated over the internet. The PLC is connected to a gateway, and information gets relayed using a protocol like Modbus to send information to the server using MQTT (or other transmission control protocol–based protocols like HTTP/S). Since this process of industrial protocol translation requires a gateway, there is little added cost of using LoRaWAN, which also requires a gateway to function. Therefore, in the IIoT domain, the preeminence of legacy systems and the presence of gateways leads to LoRa modulation technology being a better fit.

How Will Future IoT Deployments Be Affected by Leveraging LPWA Technologies?


Rollouts of CAT-M and NB-IoT continue across the world in key markets such as the United States and China, respectively. These are being closely watched not only by the telcos that roll out these networks but also by providers of IoT platforms and services, including device management and connectivity management suppliers. LPWA is a significant industrywide trend across key points of the IoT value chain, such as connectivity management and device management. Multiple device management vendors recognize the value of leveraging LPWA to deliver over-the-air updates in a way that is suitable for small footprint devices. Device management services also provide analytics on battery usage of the sensor that can be used to determine how often the sensor scans its surroundings and connects to the network.

Expect industrial, agriculture, and logistics use cases to face less disruption by NB-IoT and Cat-M since LoRa is already an established solution in those verticals. This is due to gateways being already provisioned for another purpose of industrial protocol translation, better outdoor rural coverage, and in-motion tracking applications. However, other verticals are expected to face more disruption by next-gen LPWA connectivity, including smart meters, smart environment (ozone and CO2) sensors, and water leak sensors, and so NB-IoT is suitable as it improves latency in comparison with LoRa while being deployed in stationary rather than in-motion applications. CAT-M use cases include telematics where processing of automotive stats can be done with lower latency; CAT-M delivers the higher data throughput required. Given CAT-M’s suitability, for telematics there may be a disruption compared with current generation 4G cellular technology.

In verticals such as critical infrastructure—such as water and energy utilities—where security is expected to be a significant factor, NB-IoT networks provide a higher grade of encryption—up to 256 bits higher than LoRaWAN’s 128-bit encryption. In the utilities segment (water and electricity), NB-IoT is suitable for smart metering applications as well as sensors that detect leakages (like a water leak in a pipe). Next-gen mMTC standards such as NB-IoT have facilitated more IoT deployments beyond proof-of-concept to actual usage in the field. While LoRa technology was developed earlier than NB-IoT and CAT-M, it still has its uses, especially given that LoRa excels in an IIoT environment as well as in rural applications (agriculture) with low throughput uses such as measuring soil acidity and measuring temperature and through sensors that measure humidity since these metrics don’t change rapidly. LoRa-based sensors are suitable as they preserve battery life. Since these deployments don’t require higher throughput and don’t require lower latency responses, modulation technologies based on LoRa are expected to persist in the market.



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