Choosing the right network technology for your IoT deployment
This is the final article in our two-part series on LPWAN technologies and their applications for business. Check out our initial article here.
Low power wide area networks (LPWANs) are quickly becoming the technology of choice for connecting thousands of devices via the Internet of Things (IoT). Solutions using LPWAN technology use less battery power on connected devices and have a longer range of connectivity than traditional mobile networks – but not all LPWAN technologies are the same. Here’s an overview on the types of services available, and what to watch for when deciding which one is right for your business.
The LPWAN options: Unlicensed versus Licensed
There are two broad categories of LPWAN technologies.
Unlicensed LPWANs rely on proprietary technologies that run over radio spectrum that is unlicensed, which means the frequency can be used by anyone. LPWAN solutions were pioneered in this space and their most common use is transmitting small messages mainly in urban areas.
As the name implies, licensed LPWANs (also referred to as Mobile IoT by the GSMA) uses radio spectrum that is exclusively licensed for use by specific carriers. These networks are based on international standards that allow seamless and reliable connections from one network to another. Licensed LPWANs include LTE-M, which provides broad coverage by leveraging the existing LTE infrastructure. Typical uses span a wide range of factors and industries.
Criteria to consider:
Organizations should make sure the LPWAN technology they choose will fully support their goals for IoT, said Peter Wilcox, Director of IoT and Business Solutions with Bell Canada. In doing so, there are four main criteria to consider:
Coverage: The distribution of your IoT devices is an important factor in determining which technology to adopt. Are they located over a limited or wide area? Are they in hard to reach areas, such as below ground? Are they stationary or mobile?
If you don’t need wide coverage (e.g. less than 10 kilometres in urban areas) and the devices aren’t hard to reach or are mobile, an unlicensed LPWAN may be a low-cost option.
LTE-M services, on the other hand, are designed to reach devices distributed over a wide area, or in challenging locations, such as deep inside buildings or underground. This makes the technology ideal for smart city applications that monitor devices below ground, such as water pressure sensors. Businesses that require mobile asset tracking, such as the transportation industry, should consider a licensed LTE-M service because it can transfer data quickly and seamlessly from moving vehicles.
Security: When choosing an LPWAN technology, organizations should take into account the level of sensitivity of the data to be transmitted over the network, both in terms of privacy of the information and the business importance. An unlicensed network, like LoRa, offers two layers of security and encryption. However, all unlicensed networks use shared frequencies and are prone to interference and vulnerable to attacks. If data sensitivity is a concern, licensed LTE-M networks can ensure message integrity and that only valid devices can communicate over your network, in the same way that current cellular networks do.
Reliability: Does your IoT solution require fast or real-time data delivery? Speed is not always a necessity for all IoT applications, in which case, an unlicensed network may be sufficient. Generally, an unlicensed network experiences latency of up to 30 seconds, as compared to 50 milliseconds on LTE-M, said Wilcox. As such, LTE-M is better suited for mission-critical applications, or those that require real-time information delivery. “If a utility has to make a decision to shut down a system based on real-time sensor information, a licensed network may be a better solution,” said Wilcox.
Organizations should also think about the flexibility they might need going forward. Is there a requirement for periodic software updates on the devices? Does the solution need to be adaptable to future technology trends, like 5G? Unlicensed networks are based on proprietary technology and may be an option for organizations that don’t need a high degree of flexibility. Licensed networks are standards-based and may be more suited to organizations that want to stay flexible. For example, Bell’s 5G-ready LTE-M network allows organizations to update software remotely – which can’t be done on an unlicensed network.
Expertise: Organizations that are relatively new to IoT, or are launching new IoT applications, should review the support and expertise available from the provider, said Wilcox. “Ask whether they’ve deployed hundreds of vertical use cases and can advise businesses and municipalities on the best way to get the most out of their IoT strategy.”