Now that we’re about to see an unprecedented surge in the Internet of Things (IoT) over the next few years, a technological and commercial battle is already being waged between incumbent telecoms operators and new entrants, both of which are looking to provide connectivity for tens of billions of objects.

IoT: Waveband Wars about to hot up

Gartner gives a figure of 30 billion, Cisco is predicting 50 billion, and European digital economy think-tank IDate goes as far as 60 billion. Whichever figure is closest to reality, we look certain to be completely surrounded by connected objects by the year 2020. They will come in all shapes and sizes, from our myriad portable terminals, to wearables electronic devices and connected cars. A large majority of these ‘objects’ will however be invisible sensors designed to measure a comprehensive range of parameters in the urban environment, including transport needs and resources, or monitor and control the equipment installed in our homes.

However, connecting all these small sensors raises a number of technical problems. Connected sensors have to be cheap to manufacture and must also consume very little energy, as they will not usually be plugged in to a power source. These are requirements which the traditional 2G/3G and 4G mobile telecommunication networks cannot really meet. Consequently, a number of alternatives have been under development.

Competition for French pioneer Sigfox

Sigfox is the first independent startup to have rolled out a network designed specifically for the Internet of Things. Using a frequency that was originally earmarked for communication with submarines during World War I, the Toulouse-based company is able to provide a long-range communications solutions suited to light connected objects, which requires far fewer base stations than a traditional cellular network. And while the Sigfox network provides very little bandwidth, at the same time it does not require much in the way of resources from the small objects it is connecting. It is therefore an ideal way to enable a sensor to send a simple measurement read-out one or several times a day. The Sigfox network is now up and running in around twenty countries, where the company has signed agreements with local operators, and over 7 million objects are already connected through it. A typical customer is e.l.m. leblanc, part of the Bosch group, which has just announced that 100,000 of its boilers will be connected to the Sigfox network from September this year.

Initially taken by surprise by such successes, telecoms operators are now gearing up to fight back. In the first place, they intend to counterattack Sigfox on its home territory – low-bandwidth networks. The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2015 saw the official launch of the LoRa alliance, a group of network operators and manufacturers who have teamed up to promote the technology created by the Grenoble firm Cycleo (since acquired by the US company Semtech). This technology uses the same frequency as Sigfox but differs in a number of technical aspects and is based on a different business model. “The main advantage of Sigfox is that they have already rolled out their network in France and a number of other countries and you can already take out a subscription,” points out Pascal Saguin, General Manager at Adeunis RF, who is an expert on connected objects networks, explaining: “With LoRa, on the other hand, there are two possible approaches. You can use your own private networks by installing antennae, or opt for a public network operated by Bouygues, Orange, Swisscom in Switzerland, Proximus in Belgium, etc.”

With a Low-Power Wide-Area Network (LPWAN) such as Sigfox, the SENSdumpster, a sensor placed on a refuse container – or dumpster – can work for 5 years powered by just two AA batteries. Source: Sigfox.

Competition among LoRa operators

When these LoRa public network offerings are finally launched commercially, they will enable designers of connected objects to list commercially competitive offerings among themselves, and one would hope that this competition will bring down the prices and increase the quality of service of the networks designated by the umbrella term Low-Power Wide-Area Networks (LPWAN). “Which supplier customers opt for will largely depend on their needs in practice,” underlines Pascal Saguin, explaining: “The main differentiator between LoRa and Sigfox will be the issue of roaming. With Sigfox, wherever in Europe you happen to be, your servers will gather the data from your sensors no matter where they are. With LoRa, you’ll have to cope with the roaming function in the same way as you do today with your SIM card.”

Meanwhile other French startups have been getting into the emerging LPWAN market, one example being Actility, which numbers Orange, Dutch telecoms operator KPN, Chinese electronics manufacturer Foxconn and French telecommunications service provider Qowisio among its investors. Angers-based Qowisio, a founder member of the ‘Cité de l'Objet Connecté’, a co-working space dedicated to the IoT field, has raised €10 million in capital to develop its highly unusual value proposition: the company offers to take on the full range of tasks from design and manufacture of a connected object, to acting as LoRa network operator, and then collecting and making available the data generated by the installed objects. With this end-to-end offering, Qowisio reckons it can create connected objects costing less than €10 each coupled with connectivity costing only ten eurocents.

Now that the market is starting to take off, the spectre of saturation of the frequencies to be used by these networks is already looming large. Arcep, an independent French agency in charge of regulating telecommunications in France, is now preparing for the arrival of hundreds of millions of ‘low-powered devices’ (LPDs) – i.e. connected objects – on these new-generation networks and has launched a consultation process on the use of new frequency bands between 862 MHz and 921 MHz, which enable long distance transmission.

LPWANs, among them Sigfox and LoRa, provide minimal bandwidth but with long-distance reach. A key advantage for their development is that the frequency bands they use are free and not subject to national licence-granting procedures. Source: Peter R. Egli

Cellular networks still in contention

Telecoms operators may be determined to compete with Sigfox on the low bandwidth front, but cellular networks can by no means be ruled out of the game when it comes to connecting objects to the Internet. Pascal Saguin does not believe that the new networks will entirely eclipse mobile networks. He argues: "The LPWANs are going to galvanise the mobile networks into action. 3GPP is already responding to the challenge of LoRa and Sigfox, and this response will be complementary rather than cannibalistic."
According to Swedish M2M/IoT market research firm Berg Insight, in 2015 the ‘traditional’ Machine to Machine (M2M) market on mobile networks accounted for 265.2 million connected objects worldwide. Mobile networks have moved from 2G to 3G and even 4G, enabling far higher bandwidth than the LPWANs. They can also be used to collect large volumes of data from complex manufacturing machinery and transmit video surveillance camera flows. Alarm systems and parking meters use this type of network, but the subscription cost is high, geographical coverage is still incomplete, with blank zones in low-populated areas, and above all their high electricity consumption makes it a must to have a power grid connection or dedicated solar panel.
Conscious of these limitations, 3GPP (the 3rd Generation Partnership Project), a consortium of seven telecoms standardisation bodies, has just published new standards intended to adapt mobile networks to the special functionality needs of connected objects. With the new LTE M1 standard for 4G and the Narrow-Band IOT (NB-IOT), and the EC-GSM for 2G, operators will see their networks back in contention for the IoT market.

LPWANs are widely talked about in the context of the IoT surge, but traditional mobile networks will continue to develop in the field of M2M connections. Source: Berg Insight

Small networks with big ambitions

Alongside these movements among standard telecoms operators, other networks are also now growing in stature, such as those in the field of office automation. The home appliances sector has tended to use its own standards, but the designers of many other household objects such as lighting, connected scales and other equipment linked to health and well-being have preferred to use WiFi and Bluetooth networks to connect their devices to the user’s Internet box or directly to his/her smartphone. However, these networks have some obvious limitations and their designers are now working hard to improve their performance in line with the special needs of connected objects.

One example of this trend is the newly-released Bluetooth 5 standard, whose protocol should be available in late 2016 or early 2017, enabling the transmission of information twice as fast as the current 4.0 version and four times the current distance. Connected objects designers will no doubt be interested not only in the progress achieved as regards its Low Energy features, but also in offline mode, used for the ‘beacon’ systems now installed in so many retail stores. In this contest, home-area network ZigBee is not resting on its laurels either. Used in the ‘smart home’ to run power points, connected lightbulbs and door locks, ZigBee is now developing an IoT network. A new specification, called JupiterMesh, will transform this small network into a huge decentralised mesh network. Its bandwidth will be lower than what WiFi can provide, but with 652 to 800 kilobits per second this network will perform better than the LPWANs.

The WiFi Alliance is not taking the situation lying down either. Faced with this swarm of initiatives, the Alliance recently released a new low-energy consumption version with increased reach. The new protocol IEEE 802.11ah, aka ‘HaLow’, works in frequency bands below one GHz, and is thus close to those of Sigfox and LoRa. Its designers are aiming for bandwidth in the order of 150 kilobits to 7.8 Megabits per second. With a range close to a kilometre, this type of network could theoretically connect up to 8,000 objects.
As the IoT starts to really take off, the designers of connected objects have an impressive range of communications options at their disposal. The shrewdest among them will be able to figure out which of the technologies will win out over the next 10 to 20 years.

Used with Beacons and many types of wearables, Bluetooth has proved its worth in the connected objects field. The new Bluetooth 5 standard could really give its prospects a boost. Source: Estimote


By Alain Clapaud
Independent journalist specialising in the new technologies