LPWA is the Long Awaited Catalyst for the Internet of Things | By Michael Vedomske

The Grand Vision of the Internet of Things

The Internet of Things has been anticipated for years. It’s been called sensor networking, machine-to-machine (M2M) connectivity, the Internet of Things (IoT) or further the Internet of Everything (IoE). Under its various names and technology implementations it has been a part of the Gartner Hype cycle since 2005 (sensor networks) and been called the “Internet of Things” since 2011 which simply shows it has been anticipated for a very long time. Why has the IoT captured the minds of the technologically inclined for so many years?

A Simple, Realistic, and Salient Scenario of the IoT Enabled Life

Some people hear IoT and think of wearables and talking appliances. But let’s explore one simple use case that makes the IoT a bit more salient and frankly, believable: connected sensors placed in cars (and I’m not talking about usage-based insurance). These sensors would monitor auto components such as suspension component or brake vibrations, drivetrain components’ temperature, voltage of various electrical components, wheel and cylinder RPMs, bearing vibrations, and all of the currently available OBDII data.

Many of these sensors already exist or could easily exist if the data was usable and demand was in place. The data becomes usable with cheap and ubiquitous wireless connectivity. This data would communicate wirelessly to various hubs — including your very own household maintenance app. Predictive models would use the collected data to help provide recommended maintenance (beyond simply changing your oil). This is called condition-based maintenance and has a real and broadly applicable business case once the sensors and wireless service become cheap enough.

one simple use case …condition-based maintenance … has a real and broadly applicable business case once the sensors and wireless service become cheap enough

Wirelessly connected condition based maintenance allows for a significantly reduced number of surprise break downs while riding down the highway. Not only will your car and the associated software provide warnings for upcoming repairs and maintenance but also have built in risk profiles. Can’t risk a break down ever? You will be given more aggressive maintenance. Prefer to stretch the dollar as far as you can? Only acute recommendations will be alerted. These cheap sensors and affordable connectivity crack open the black box that is your car and provide every consumer with easy to understand recommendations based on their risk preferences.

The Vision Spreads to the Enterprise

If that technology is available for your personal vehicle, imagine it across entire fleets of vehicles: rentals, delivery vehicles, garbage collection, taxis, freight, municipal fleets, warehouse forklifts, construction equipment, and more. Cargo ships have had such sensors for this kind of condition-based maintenance for some years now, but the affordable nature of the wireless sensors and connectivity allow these savings to spread to all kinds of transportation, not just freighters.

Cargo ships have had sensors for condition-based maintenance for some years now, but the affordable nature of the wireless sensors and connectivity allow these savings to spread to all kinds of transportation, not just freighters.

Let’s discuss the benefits and describe the actual business case. Predictive maintenance can be planned both in terms of time and cash expenditures. This planned approach allows for more efficient cash-flow reducing large unplanned cash outlays, a serious problem for both small businesses and large enterprises whose ratings and stock prices are sensitive to free cash flow conversion and other cash related metrics.

This planned approach allows for more efficient cash-flow reducing large unplanned cash outlays, a serious problem for both small businesses and large enterprises whose ratings and stock prices are sensitive to free cash flow conversion and other cash related metrics.

More directly, condition based maintenance reduces out-of-service time which improves economies of scale by allowing each physical asset to be used over a greater number of units sold. In addition to improving asset usage, companies would also be able to reduce variables costs by reducing wasted man-hours waiting for downed vehicles to be repaired during working hours.

But there is no reason these same exact benefits cannot be used for non-mobile machines. Spread these savings beyond mobile machines to factories and shops with millions of machines and parts that require upkeep or replacement periodically. This is how the IoT will gain the efficiencies so often touted. At this scale, even a marginal amount of savings accumulated over millions of vehicles and machines could easily provide the billions of dollars projected.

The Vision Returns to Consumers

Those savings will of course allow the early adopter companies to be more profitable than others, but as adoption spreads companies will price compete with one another, and those savings will be passed on to the consumers who will get higher quality service and products for lower prices.

…as adoption spreads companies will price compete with one another, and those savings will be passed on to the consumers who will get higher quality service and products for lower prices

What we’ve discussed here is only one small part of one small segment of the IoT. We didn’t discuss conveniences of everyday life enabled by cheap ubiquitous wireless connectivity. This kind of connectivity would enable you to drive downtown knowing exactly where you’ll park because you reserved it on your smartphone through the city’s smart parking system.

Or a bit further into the future, your calendar app automatically reserved it for you and then your self-driving car drove you there the day of the event without even needing further input from you. Parking spot monitoring and reservation is all possible with today’s technology. This kind of smart city parking system could significantly reduce congestion around major events and thus reduce traffic incidents. These were two very simple but scalable IoT use cases. If even the condition based maintenance use cases alone were realized, we would already obtain tremendous efficiencies from the IoT. Equally grounded and valuable applications exist in healthcare, infrastructure management, household goods, and more. The vision of the IoT is real, and now it has the wireless solution it needs to take off.

LPWA Uniquely Serves the Vision of the IoT

How the IoT Has Historically Been Served

Wireless sensor networks have historically been served by some combination of traditional cellular or local area solutions like WiFi mesh and local RF. These solutions have failed to provide the catalyst needed to push the IoT over the edge and into mainstream adoption for a few basic reasons. First, these traditional approaches require a wired power source. This limits IoT applications to scenarios where there is already a power line or requires installing one, so only the most obvious and strongest cost savings applications are served. Second, they have limited area and depth of coverage per access point. Thus, applications were required to stay within a very limited area around the wireless source preventing many applications from being possible. Thirdly, they were costly to use. Even after several years and over a billion modules used, LTE modules still cost over $40 a piece. Mesh requires an entire network to be built out before it can be used. Local RF solutions require each business to build, manage, and maintain the wireless infrastructure preventing economies of scale.

Enter Low Power Wide Area Connectivity

Publicly available Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) connectivity uniquely solves each of the aforementioned problems. Low Power Wide Area connectivity is pretty much what it says: wireless connectivity that covers a wide area using low power. In addition, LPWA can do so with low cost endpoints. LPWA is in contrast to the data and battery intensive 2G, 3G, or LTE cellular wireless technology. It also contrasts with traditional cellular because it is low bandwidth. The vast majority of devices on the IoT will not need the kind of data throughput that traditional cellular is designed to provide. In fact, according to James Brehm & Associates, 86% of IoT devices consume less than 3MB a month.

Of course there will be IoT devices that will need more bandwidth, and those will be served well by higher bandwidth solutions; but the sensors that give us the efficiencies discussed need only to periodically send a few hundred bytes to justify their value.

It should be clear that in order to achieve the grand vision of the IoT we will need publicly available out of the box connectivity for machines and devices.

It should be clear that in order to achieve the grand vision of the IoT we will need publicly available out of the box connectivity for machines and devices.

In other words, the IoT described in the press and in this article must be connected by a ubiquitous wireless service dedicated to machines (much like cellular networks are used today for human driven voice/data connections). Both traditional cellular and LPWA are proposed public network solutions to IoT connectivity. 2G has been used for years to provide this publicly available connectivity that IoT devices need. But with AT&T finishing up their 2G shutdown the end of this year (2016) and others following close behind, it’s clear cellular 2G isn’t the path forward.

2015: The Year LPWA Grew Up

2015 in many ways was the year of LPWA. Three major players have emerged as potential low power wide area connectivity providers: Ingenu, Sigfox, and LoRa. Each of these companies provide different technologies that have long reaching implications on their viability to serve the vision of the IoT. We’ll discuss these in upcoming posts.

Cellular providers are also beginning to join the LPWA movement through 3GPP’s latest work toward creating a standard that matches the LPWA criteria. (Despite the press releases, cellular LPWA isn’t quite there yet. Power usage is notoriously tricky to gauge because it involves so many interactions; so whether cellular’s latest attempts will be low power remains to be seen.) By beginning to develop cellular-LPWA, cellular providers have essentially admitted that traditional cellular is not the appropriate technology to connect the IoT.

By beginning to develop cellular-LPWA, cellular providers have essentially admitted that traditional cellular is not the appropriate technology to connect the IoT.

What is clear is that LPWA uniquely serves the vision of the IoT. Analysts and wireless carriers agree that LPWA will take the lion’s share of the IoT’s connectivity.

Analysts and wireless carriers agree that LPWA will take the lion’s share of the IoT’s connectivity

The exact numbers of LPWA connections aren’t important; we know they’ll number in the many billions. What’s important is the nature of the applications these connections enable: truly useful, efficiency enabling applications that are simple, scalable, and improve our lives directly and indirectly.

In Conclusion

Once we understand how the IoT can achieve the efficiencies it is touted to, then we can commit to the vision. We walked through a simple example of how a car with simple sensors installed and then wirelessly connected to analytics software could allow for planned expenditures. This reduces cash flow issues and allows for lower asset costs. Condition based maintenance doesn’t only apply to personal vehicles, but to all sorts of fleet vehicles and goes beyond vehicles to machines in factories and shops. And through this use case alone we see the vast efficiencies gained from simple sensors collecting data that could be used for predictive maintenance and alerts.

LPWA uniquely allows these savings because it enables long lasting battery life, wider and deeper coverage areas, and lower module costs than traditional wireless services like cellular and mesh. With cellular standards bodies beginning to develop their own cellular LPWA they have effectively declared that LPWA truly is the wireless technology suited for the IoT. Press and analysts agree that LPWA is the wireless connectivity choice for enabling the majority of IoT applications. What is for certain is that LPWA is here to stay and will command a large part of the IoT’s wireless provider market share.

In our next posts we’ll discuss what the ‘L’ in LPWA really stands for, and how that really determines the long-term viability of the IoT.

Read our white paper, How RPMA Works, to find out more about how Ingenu’s LPWA wireless technology, RPMA, uniquely meets the IoT’s connectivity needs. Please comment with any thoughts, or reach out directly to us at blog@ingenu.com.

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