Three UK has announced that it is piloting a low-powered wide area network (LPWAN), aimed at connecting IoT devices. Omnisperience looks at what they’re doing, how this fits into the network mix, and what the alternatives are.

Three UK rolls out LPWAN

Three UK and CKH Innovations Opportunities Development have announced they are piloting a low power wide area network (LPWAN) prior to a UK-wide rollout. The pilot network is at the Integrated Transport Electricity Gas Research Laboratory in Gateshead, UK in partnership with Northern Gas Networks, Newcastle University, Northern Powergrid, Northumbrian Water and Siemens.

“LPWA[N] offers huge potential for the gas industry. Real-time data from our infrastructure flowing into advanced data analytics models will allow us to take fast, agile and even pre-emptive action to deliver outstanding customer value whilst maintaining the highest level of resilience, which will be more important than ever as we transition to a low carbon energy network. Our industry needs new technologies such as this to support our ambitions to decarbonise gas systems, through projects such as H21 to transition to hydrogen for heat and meet the UK Net Zero target by 2050.” Matthew Little, Innovation, Information and Improvement Director, Northern Gas Networks

Three UK’s Wholesale division already provides IoT connectivity to Arm, Arkessa, AT&T, Wireless Logic and Mobius. The UK division of Three will be able to learn from the experience of other parts of the group, including Three Austria, Sweden and Hong Kong. In Austria, Three has had success using LPWAN technology for customers in the energy, transport, logistics and building management sectors. Three Sweden was the first mobile operator in Sweden to launch NB-IoT services nationally, focusing on supporting utility providers who needed connectivity for smart-metering applications.

It is likely that Three UK will focus on similar sectors to those targeted in other Three properties, with the initial focus in the UK being on utilities.

But haven’t we heard all of this before? How is LPWAN different to other IoT connectivity options, and what other choices do customers and partners have?

What is LPWAN?

Also known as LPWA, low-powered wide area network (LPWAN)  technology has four characteristics that are useful for IoT connectivity:

  • it can cover a large area – up to 40km in rural areas and 1-5km in metro areas
  • the radio signal penetrates deep inside buildings and underground – which is important for applications such as smart metering because UK meters tend to be in cellars and deep inside houses
  • low-energy devices can last for years in the field, with 10 year battery lives being touted
  • it is relatively cheap because it uses unlicensed spectrum and relatively inexpensive equipment, which means it can be used for extremely low-value IoT use cases that generate just a few pounds per year.

This type of connectivity is suitable for use cases that need to transmit small amounts of data intermittently, which probably account for the vast majority (80%) of IoT use cases. There are a number of competing standards for this type of connectivity, including:

  • LoRa WAN – an opensource protocol for LoRa. To make things even more confusing, there are actually two competing protocols for LoRa, LoRa WAN (initially mainly deployed in Europe) and Symphony Link (deployed in US and Canada)
  • Sigfox – which was developed in 2010 and is now available in 65 countries. In the UK and LATAM it is resold by the service provider WND. Sigfox devices are very low cost, which means they can be deployed for very low value applications.
  • NB-IoT – which is standardised by the 3GPP. In September 2019, the GSMA announced that 100 operators had launched, or are launching, NB-IoT based services. 3UK is piloting both NB-IoT and LTE-M. (LTE-M is a cellular-grade, high-performance IP-based communication protocol for IoT use cases. It uses more power but is more suitable for mobile use cases.)

Which technology will win out on the race to IoT connectivity?

This is a difficult question to answer because it presupposes that IoT is a single market rather than a number of different types of application gathered under the IoT umbrella. The ‘best’ technology therefore depends on the nature of the use case, as well as the approach an enterprise decides to take.

Apart from the technical differences between these three technologies, there are business differences also, which means the three are not necessarily direct competitors, but are finding their own niches.

LoRa WAN is being deployed by municipalities and others that have technical (and connectivity) capabilities. As such it is a relatively mature, low-cost, self-serve option, but does require someone to deploy and manage it (it does not come with network).

Sigfox is resold by the service provider WND as a fully-managed option. Data is collected on behalf of the enterprise and exposed on the WND cloud platform for analysis.

NB-IoT really comes into its own for critical use cases (eg transporting an organ for transplant) or for mobile IoT use cases. It’s also managed, and can be readily combined with other network options, services and applications, by an enterprise’s service provider.

While it is still uncertain whether service providers can make up the ground lost to LoRa WAN and Sigfox in the early phases of this market, service providers do have the financial muscle and supply chain relationships with device manufacturers to quickly gain lost ground. However, it’s likely that low-cost, low-volume use cases will simply not be economic to support using a traditional carrier model, which means either a business case rethink or partnering with an alt net such as Sigfox or LoRa WAN. Most operators now recognise that IoT connectivity alone is not going to pay for their network build out, let alone their profit margins, and thus are thinking about the extra value that can be offered in a fully managed service.

This is smart because it’s unlikely that most enterprises will have either the expertise or the wish to manage and support an increasingly diverse and large volume of IoT devices. At the end of the day, they will just want them to work and so they can get the data delivered and take any necessary action. This is even more the case in the SME market, where companies will likely have neither the scale nor the requisite technical capabilities, and will be primarily looking for ease of use.

Posted by Teresa Cottam

Teresa is the Chief Analyst at Omnisperience and has over 25 years' experience in the telecoms and technology markets. She is an expert on SME and enterprise telecoms, and has considerable vertical market expertise. Her research focus lies in helping B2B telecoms firms become more commercially successful by better understanding and meeting their customers' needs. She is a judge of the GSMA Global Mobile Awards (GloMo's) for customer experience and enterprise innovation, and for the UK Cloud awards. You can follow her on Twitter @teresacottam

One Comment

  1. In addition to providing the technology, I wonder what Three is doing to stimulate the uptake. As with all technologies, NB-IOT (of whatever flavour) is a means to an end, not an end in itself. There are so many opportunities with NB-IOT but they all need nurturing: Smart Cities, industrial, utilities, environment & nature, ‘wired farm’, health care, leisure, educational (skills sets need to be raised). Each industry sector is a huge area in itself. Big opportunities are there for those that make them.

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