Three flavors of IoT network technology
For small data packages onlyThe rise of these networks – complementary to existing mobile technologies such as WiFi, Bluetooth, 3/4G and GPRS – is actually a logical evolution. In all but a few IoT applications it would not make any sense to equip devices with a SIM card and a mobile data subscription. The amount of data these devices send out in IoT applications is negligible compared with the average consumer’s mobile data consumption.
These new low-power wide area network devices (LPWAN) consume far less energy, are much cheaper and offer wider coverage than the traditional telecom networks. Therefore an entire country can be covered with a limited number of base stations. The key benefit of LPWANs is that they enable battery powered devices to send out data for years, thanks to their low power transmission feature. They are ideal to support applications such as asset tracking, smart metering, industrial control, smart agriculture, smart cities, etc. Furthermore, they allow secure and bidirectional communication, enabling for example the definition of thresholds that trigger alerts when they are exceeded.
Parallel networksThe three main networks that are at play at this time are LoRa (Long Range, Low Power ), Sigfox and NB-IoT (Narrowband IoT). LoRa and Sigfox are the most alike. They are both LPWANs, they currently both use unlicensed radio band (no SIM card needed) and they both offer secure and bidirectional communication, although Sigfox appears to be slightly stronger in the bidirectional field.
What makes them different are the possible downsides. LoRa – rolled out in Belgium by Proximus – is part of an alliance that focuses predominantly on Europe and has a national scope. So, when your device crosses the border, you’ll need another contract with a national telecom operator. Sigfox is rolling out its network worldwide and has partnered with Engie in Belgium. A disadvantage of their business model is that all agreements have to be made exclusively with Sigfox. The French company owns all the technology—from the backend data and cloud server to the endpoints software.
One challenge they both share is the ability to provide for software updates on the devices. Since they both make use of low bandwidths – from 865 to 868 MHz –, they were designed for sending small data packages. That forces users, for now at least, to equip their devices with GPRS or 3G technology to allow regular software updates.