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Low-Power WANs: A 2020 Enterprise View

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LPWAN
(Source: Pixabay)

Enterprise IT managers can expect to see a more robust series of new capabilities, choices, and lower prices for LPWANs, which companies have used to monitor and manage valuable assets over long distances.

The tsunami of 5G headlines and hype in 2019 has overshadowed companies’ use of the low-speed, low-cost, long-life networks that use inexpensive sensors and radios.

Early on

Businesses have used LPWANs to connect fixed and far-flung resources. Attached units regularly send a small amount of data over low-speed wireless connections using sub- $10 radio units to a central location for monitoring and management. Interest in LPWAN services spans vertical industries. Others include oil and gas, utilities, healthcare, logistics, transportation, and manufacturing.

A series of options have taken root, many based on different technologies. Early offerings emerged outside the U.S. But most U.S. cellular operators deliver LPWAN services in the last few years.

Defining LPWAN

LPWAN has been generically as an umbrella term to refer to all low-bandwidth, low-data rate, and low-cost networks that handle the above-mentioned tasks.

But under this heading, however, are numerous technology approaches that are quite dissimilar, falling into two categories. The first is called LPWA and contains proprietary technologies that don’t use cellular connectivity and work in unlicensed frequencies. They include LoRa, a radio modulation technique used with the LoRaWAN protocol, and Sigfox, a company whose products use a proprietary protocol.

More recently, options in a second category have emerged. They use cellular connectivity in licensed frequencies and include Narrow Band -Internet of Things (NB-IoT) and LTE Cat M offerings.

Reviewing 2019 progress

At the close of last year, AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile had launched what I call LPWAN services in the U.S. These offering target enterprises an alternative to the DIY option and can include the option of renting monthly the radio and battery devices that transmit remote data to a central location.

Fixed and mobile

LPWANs have been used almost exclusively to monitor and manage fixed resources and assets, again such as pipelines. However, the need for affordable asset tracking has given rise to the ability to do the same for mobile assets, such as packages, as they progress through the delivery process to their destination. In this scenario, low-cost tracking devices/sensors on packages and containers report their location to a central location. T-Mobile launched such as service last fall targeted at asset tracking scenarios in partnership with RoamBee.

Roaming?

IT managers responsible for fixed and/or wireless operations outside the U.S. must check with carriers to see if they have LPWAN roaming agreements with their counterparts overseas. Enterprises with locations overseas or assets that leave the states on the way to delivery to foreign destinations can benefit from roaming/carrier interconnection arrangements.

Domestic LPWAN services have lacked international reach, though AT&T announced a partnership with international operator Vodafone in late October to extend the benefits of its narrow band IoT (NB-IoT) LPWAN service beyond the boundaries of the U.S. NB-IoT is an LPWAN radio technology standard created by the 3GPP three years ago.

This, the carrier claims will allow a device to roam between AT&T's service in the U.S. and Vodafone networks in countries including the U.K., Germany, Italy, and Spain.

IT managers should expect to see additional deals linking U.S. and foreign wireless operators in 2020. These arrangements can extend the benefits already enjoyed by current LPWAN users and convince additional companies to join the customer ranks. But IT managers must first check coverage, data speeds, and communications technology used.

Partnerships

It appears LPWAN equipment/component makers have stepped up their efforts to team with wireless operators and third parties to better address perceived enterprise needs. Partnerships have occurred in the U.S., (T-Mobile-Roambee) but seem more prevalent abroad.

Country-specific networks

Another trend for IT managers to watch is the continuing creation of national LPWAN networks. Vodafone has created many in Europe (see above).  The same holds true for Sigfox, a decade-old service provider based in France. The company has crossed the Atlantic and is currently building an IoT network for LPWAN services in Canada.

Challenging priorities

What's tough to determine is actual enterprise uses of LPWANs. Wireless operators have rolled out services, networks and teamed with third parties to pitch companies in and beyond the U.S. IoT services known for their low-cost, long battery life, and low data speeds.

There are use cases for LPWANs that won’t go away. That’s because the services boast a low TCO and for a long period of time (10 years in some cases on the equipment side). Lightning-speed wireless services are massive overkill (price, data speeds, etc.)

Set it and forget it?

Enterprise IT managers must realize that under the umbrella LPWAN name are flavors that use half and full-duplex data communications, will at some point require software updates to remote devices and may at some point require maintenance. All this should be figured into evaluations and TCO calculations.

Enterprise IT managers need to dig beyond the always-rosy, hockey-stick market forecasts to determine what the weather is like now and in the few years ahead. Talk to current customers to get a clearer vision of the LPWAN opportunity in 2020 and beyond. Talk to LPWAN solution providers to get a 20/20 look at their revenue priorities.

Make no mistake, LPWAN services are alive and used, perhaps more widely in countries around the world, but with more coming online in the year ahead.

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