Several technologies are vying to become the dominant player for LPWANs (Low-Power Wide-Area Networks ) – a critical part of the IoT’s infrastructure. But as the alternatives face headwinds, maturing cellular IoT is gaining increasing traction as the bridge between remote IoT devices and the cloud.
So important are LPWANs that the global market is set to expand from $31 billion in 2022 to $61 billion by 2026, according to analyst Juniper Research. Despite the impact of COVID-19 and the associated chip shortages the virus triggered, the LPWAN market has enjoyed steady growth over the past two years to support a global installed base of 450 million LPWAN-enabled active devices in 2020, expanding to some 660 million by the end of 2021, according to IoT Analytics.
While the LPWAN market is forging ahead, it remains fragmented. However, in that fragmented market, the cellular IoT technologies NB-IoT and LTE-M are taking a dominant market share.
An IoT Analytics report states NB-IoT (47 percent) and LTE-M (10 percent) already make up 57 percent of the global LPWAN installed base, compared to 43 percent for the combined LPWAN competition. The report suggests it’s the support of a solid ecosystem—including major IoT vendors like Amazon, Arm, Cisco, Huawei and Qualcomm, plus network operators such as Vodafone, Orange and Telefonica—that has contributed to the success of cellular IoT to date.
According to Juniper Research, the NB-IoT and LTE-M installed base is expected to grow by a dramatic 1,200 percent over the next four years. The analyst identifies the relatively low cost of connectivity and hardware as key drivers of cellular IoT adoption for remote monitoring in verticals like smart city, agriculture, and manufacturing.
LoRaWAN and Sigfox have attributes that match some of the requirements for LPWANs. For example, each offers kilometer-plus range and low end-device power consumption. But both networks are incapable of giving connected devices true bidirectional connectivity capability. For example, both LoRaWAN and Sigfox require data to pass through Internet Protocol (IP) interoperable gateways and additional infrastructure to reach the cloud. This adds complexity and potential network fault points.
And although LoRaWAN provides a degree of bidirectional communication, it is not always reliable and doesn’t offer support for remote updates. Sigfox delivers even less functionality; 'things' can send data, but essential massive IoT requirements, such as remote configuration and management, are impossible. Other notable drawbacks of both technologies include the cost of rolling out the backhaul infrastructure, limited operational throughput, and potentially Quality of Service (QoS) issues stemming from the use of unregulated spectrum.
Cellular IoT, on the other hand, offers inherent flexibility and support for massive IoT that the alternatives can’t match. Cellular IoT offers end-to-end IP connectivity, and as network infrastructure rolls-out throughout the U.S., Europe, China, Australia, and other regions, the technology is rapidly gaining traction. Base stations can support tens of thousands of cellular IoT connections, the communications are fully bidirectional, robust, reliable, and secure, and the technology is ready to support 5G.
The investment in cellular IoT infrastructure has been enormous. With the support of a strong global standards body, powerful network operators, and an increasingly large vendor ecosystem, it's beginning to look like money well spent.
This article was first published on Nordic's Get Connected Blog.