MWC 2017: Internet of Things landscape matures, and IoT as a service grows

The nine exhibition halls that made up Mobile World Congress 2017 in Barcelona were packed with technology addressing mobile communications technology and services. Not surprisingly, nascent IoT technology was a hot topic across the Fira Gran Vía venues as competing low-power wide-area (LPWA) IoT approaches contend with new 3GPP-based approaches leveraging the LTE air interface. In our meetings with LPWA players and mobile operators, we gained a fresh perspective on the state of the IoT service offerings.

The 451 Take

The evolving IoT ecosystem took a prominent place at Mobile World Congress 2017. While 5G, virtual reality and augmented reality took their share of the spotlight, IoT remained a key topic, and there were several important announcements and demonstrations. For mobile network operators, the emerging winner for early 2017 deployments is a blend of LTE Cat M1 and LoRaWAN. While we expect NB-IoT to ultimately make a significant mark on IoT service deployments, operators must respond to the license-exempt alternative networks now gaining traction. Moves to fill in the gaps with LoRaWAN and SIGFOX are also important because these early approaches remain compelling for a wide range of use cases. By adding roaming support, LoRaWAN gains increased relevance for supply-chain use cases. Likewise, the addition of coarse-grained location and a trusted-object capability helps boost SIGFOX's appeal for that segment as well. As IoT application architects puzzle over IoT network options, decisions will come down to the need for accuracy and reliability.

Low-power wide-area connectivity is an important enabler for IoT service delivery. The transmission of low-bit-rate IoT traffic with signals using low power and transmitted over lower frequency bands means broader geographic coverage and improved in-building performance. Network operators and technology specialists used Mobile World Congress to report on progress expanding LPWA functionality in the market. But, in addition, warning signs emerged that the 3GPP variant of LPWA, NarrowBand IoT (NB-IoT), faces headwinds due to network deployment challenges.

LoRaWAN ecosystem gains roaming

LoRaWAN is a low-power, wide-area IoT technology that revolves around license-exempt bands accessed with devices employing Semtech's proprietary RF platform. This non-3GPP technology is being embraced by several large mobile network operators, including Bouygues (France), du (UAE), KPN (Netherlands), Orange (France), SoftBank (Japan), Swisscom (Switzerland) and SK Telecom (Korea). The LoRa Alliance, a 400-member association of vendors and network operators, came to Mobile World Congress to highlight a new roaming capability added to the LoRaWAN ecosystem that handles the case of connected objects that get moved from location to location, potentially between different LoRaWAN networks. This new capability is important because it opens up new application use cases targeting transportation logistics and supply-chain management.

As an indication of how important LoRaWAN is to mobile operators, SK Telecom dedicated a portion of its Mobile World Congress booth to LoRaWAN applications and SK-branded access units. Of course, SK Telecom highlighted availability of the new roaming functionality. More surprisingly, LoRaWAN was the only IoT technology highlighted in the SK Telecom booth. New 3GPP-based mechanisms failed to get a mention in the scarce booth real estate.

SIGFOX fills gaps

SIGFOX is a pioneer in the delivery of low-power wide-area technology. In contrast to the LoRaWAN ecosystem, SIGFOX is a network service that leverages common commercial off-the-shelf RF silicon for access to a comprehensive IoT cloud in a number of countries around the globe. Its services operate in lower frequency ISM bands with networks operated by SIGFOX in selected nations and in-country partners in others. At Mobile World Congress, it commanded a central position in the Fira's Hall 8 IoT area. We met with the company's representatives and heard about important extensions targeting technical limits of the SIGFOX implementation.

The company has historically faced limitations posed by restrictions on the number of bits possible in messages and the overall message rate. This limits bandwidth-heavy features including encryption and location data. On the security front, SIGFOX reports progress with an approach that employs a new STMicroelectronics secure tamper-resistant element preloaded with security credentials. Deployment of this trusted object means the local application can leverage network security keys without the untenable overhead. This new capability is important because supply-chain applications are now using IoT to track adherence to contractual requirements for shipping quality. Examples of this include tracking temperature deviation during shipping of perishable goods.

Likewise, SIGFOX applications tracking shipping logistics need to be aware of location. To address this requirement within the bounds of data constraints mandated by the SIGFOX architecture, the company launched new network-based functionality that generates crude location data on the order of 5-10km granularity. Without device-generated latitude or longitude data, the approach relies on machine learning driven by signal-processing techniques in the network. With this coarse-grained location capability, new applications become feasible for the SIGFOX network – supply-chain logistics and luggage tracking, for example.

Beyond the US, mobile network operators eye LTE Cat M1

Low-power wide-area IoT support is a major theme of 3GPP Release 13. This release, now supported by the latest software releases of the major network equipment providers, includes NB-IoT technology that responds to license-exempt LPWA alternatives. In addition to the radically different approach taken with NB-IoT – assigning a resource block of the LTE waveform to host an encapsulated air interface with an independent signaling channel – Release 13 also adds IoT support in the classic LTE fashion: a new terminal category called LTE Cat M1. This new category provides a superior link budget compared to LTE Cat 1 and, when combined with power-saving mode and extended DRX features, offers up to 10 years of battery life. In addition, LTE Cat M1 enables simpler silicon logic with reduced costs thanks to a single antenna and half-duplex operation.

Original interest in LTE Cat M1 was strongest in the US market. At Mobile World Congress 2017, we detected growing interest in Cat M1 in other regions around the globe. At the same time, we heard concerns from a number of operators that NB-IoT deployment is proving to be challenging because a portion of the installed eNodeB systems require baseband upgrades. The combination of LTE Cat M1 and LoRaWAN is helping provide these operators a response to competitive pressures today while not ruling out NB-IoT exploits later.

Reducing deployment barriers with IoT as a service

Recognizing the challenge that mobile operators face in ramping up IoT service offerings, the major network equipment providers moved to position IoT as a service as a way to ease entry into the market. The movement started with Ericsson's IoT Accelerator, which launched in April, and gained momentum at Mobile World Congress, where Nokia launched its worldwide IoT network grid ('WING') and Huawei touted its take on IoT as a service.

Nokia's WING offering provides a hosted model that helps operators reduce the barrier to entering IoT services. WING includes the Nokia IMPACT IoT Platform, eSIM subscription management and Nokia's machine-to-machine core network as a service. The offering includes a multi-country federation of IoT connectivity services supporting movable objects such as vehicles and containers.

NB-IoT pioneer Huawei used Mobile World Congress to highlight its take on IoT as a service. In its booth, the company showed off a number of compelling use cases being implemented by partners that take advantage of Huawei's cloud-based services. Use cases included water-leakage detection, proactive elevator management systems (including a mobile edge computing component), and an innovative IoT-enabled bike-sharing system in use in major Chinese cities. The bike-sharing system eliminates the traditional station concept and, thanks to location tracking and NB-IoT, allows users to drop the bike anywhere. Likewise, users can locate nearby bikes with the aid of smartphone applications. A key element of Huawei's Mobile World Congress IoT displays was incorporation of proposed business models to illustrate how mobile operators can offer IoT as a service and profit.

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