Fixed operators deploying LPWA is not surprising; the surprise is that so few have launched

Dr. Peng, the fourth largest fixed operator in China, announced on 22 November 2016 that it was planning a LoRa network to cover over 300 million people.

The announcement follows Comcast, which a month earlier, had provided details of machineQ, its IoT network and solution division, also using LoRa technology.

Dr. Peng and Comcast join Telkom SA, whose subsidiary FastNet launched its LoRa network in May 2015, as the only predominately fixed operators to be launching LPWA networks. (Telkom SA does have a mobile network but controls less than 3% of the South African mobile market. Dr. Peng has an MVNO, Comcast’s MVNO will launch in 2017.)

The building of LPWA networks by fixed only (or fixed heavy) operators should not be a surprise; the surprise is perhaps that so few fixed operators have launched these wireless networks.

LPWA networks may make sense for fixed operators for a number of reasons:

  • They already have a base of potential customers. Fixed operators typically have a large base of enterprise and public sector clients for their core fixed connectivity solutions; these are likely to be potential customers for LPWA solutions. Fixed operators are often better placed in the enterprise and public sector market than the third or fourth entrant mobile operators which tend to focus on the consumer market.
  • Fixed operators may have other assets to exploit, such as brand awareness and sales teams.
  • Many (most?) use cases for LPWA connectivity are fixed not mobile. Many of the proposed applications for LPWA networks connect objects in a fixed location — smart meters, street lights, parking spaces and so on. For any of these solutions, the customer doesn’t need national coverage as the footprint of a fixed operator in a limited geographical area is likely to be sufficient.
  • No spectrum is required. Clearly, unlicensed solutions like LoRa and Sigfox have no need for the operator to have access to licensed spectrum.
  • Unlicensed solutions may be able to exploit a gap in the market. There may be an opportunity for unlicensed solutions to fit beneath the 3GPP solutions, NB-IoT and LTE-M, that most mobile operators favour. In the US, AT&T and Verizon are planning LTE-M networks, which will offer significantly more bandwidth (up to 1Mbit/s) than solutions like LoRa (up to 10kbit/s). However, LTE-M will require pricier modules and offer shorter battery life, making it ill-suited to many potential use cases such as smart metering. NB-IoT is likely to be closer in performance levels and price to the unlicensed solutions but still there may be a substantial enough difference for a LoRa network to exploit. Also, although the ecosystem for 3GPP supported solutions will grow rapidly, LoRa has a growing community of developers and an increasing range of devices that fixed operators can leverage while the 3GPP solutions are still ramping up.