IoT technologies jockey for position as operators happy to hedge bets

Features

Multiple flavours of Internet of Things connectivity will be the norm for the telco industry in the short term, LPWA World has heard, with opinion split whether fragmentation is inevitable.

Asked during a panel event at the London conference about what to expect in the near future, Svetlana Grant, Project Director at the GSMA said she expected multiple standards to still be in place within three to five years.

Her opinions were shared by other panellists, including IoT vendors and solutions providers.

Orange’s Ronan Le Bras, Mobile IoT Project Leader, told Mobile Europe that individual operators including Orange are currently making decisions based on what presently maximises their investment.

Operators are hedging their bets between a combination of 3GPP-standardised cellular technologies such as NB-IoT and LTE-M with technologies such as LoRa and Sigfox in unlicensed spectrum.

For example, Orange is rolling out LTE-M and LoRa, Deutsche Telekom and Telekom Austria are rolling out NB-IoT and Tele2 is rolling out NB-IoT and LoRa.

In Orange’s view, LeBras said, the combination of LTE-M and LoRa is the right choice because it currently addresses more use-cases.

“We consider [LTE-M] more versatile, and it is very important at the beginning of the IoT to be able to reach as many use-cases as possible,” he explained in a presentation at the event.

He cited the capacity for higher data exchange and latency, its bi-directionality, its support for both voice services and mobility as key advantages.

Orange chose LoRa due to its technical specifications, including its light backhaul requirement. The technology was also picked due to the fact it can be deployed both privately and publicly and the fact it is open, allowing greater interoperability.

The focus on both technologies is because the operator wants to offer an end-to-end IoT platform to customers, not only supporting applications such as smart metering but also solutions requiring mobility, such as in the automotive industry.

LeBras added: “If [other] operators don’t want to address all and only address a single [use-case] that is their choice and their decision. They may think other segments are not worth addressing.”

However, despite these divergent approaches, LeBras dismissed the risk of fragmentation in the medium term. Operators are selecting IoT solutions based on their requirements now, but this “will change with time and with the reaction of different verticals,” he said.

“In the medium term they will converge and I don’t see fragmentation as a risk."

Rachit Saksena, Product Manager at Tele2 IoT, was less bullish on fragmentation, telling Mobile Europe there is “absolutely” a risk.

The operator is currently backing NB-IoT and LoRa, seeing NB-IoT as rewarding the lowest investment with the highest gains, although it is also planning to trial LTE-M next year.

In Estonia, for example, the operator has worked with Nokia to launch a system that can transmit temperature data over NB-IoT.

Saksena said until NB-IoT is rolled out more universally, unlicensed technologies such as Sigfox are filling the gap.

Some enterprises are responding by deploying local and regional connectivity solutions, but this presents issues around interoperability.

Saksena cited an unnamed Fortune 500 customer which would be forced to use a range of different devices across its global footprint for the time being due to the lack of ubiquitous NB-IoT.

To avoid fragmentation, Saksena said it is important to provide the developer community with access to radio technologies and data so that they can build solutions that will work not just on unlicensed connectivity now but on licensed connectivity as it is rolled out more widely.

He also said operators will need to change their pricing models to make the costs for licensed and unlicensed more equal.

The panel was confident in the longer term that certain standards would emerge as dominant, although there was little certainty about which these would be and exactly when this would occur.

As ever, it will be in the customers' hands, with the GSMA's Grant saying the "market will decide" ultimately which technology will rule supreme. In the meantime, competition between licensed and unlicensed technology will abound.