Low-power IoT connectivity options push forward

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Low-power wide-area (LPWA) networks for the Internet of Things are growing, but proponents say that there’s still plenty of technical work to do on the leading options, LoRa and NB-IoT. Meanwhile, Sigfox, once the darling of the emerging sector, is now seen as struggling for survival.

Overall, IoT is slowly gaining traction. But business users, today’s growth drivers, need an easier way to get IoT data into their IT systems — a hole that several companies aim to fill with middleware in the works.

More than 32 million devices shipped for the unlicensed LoRa network last year, leading a crowded pack in LPWA nets. The LTE-based NB-IoT is just getting started but came on strong with more than 16 million units shipped in 2017, according to IHS Markit.

“We see growth across the board on Cat-M1, NB-IoT, and LoRa, but the largest growth is now in LoRa in part because the cellular IoT coverage is still spotty,” said David Smith, chief technology officer for Multitech, a provider of gateways and end nodes.

Both LPWA networks have plenty of work to do.

A standard for roaming between LoRa networks won’t be finished until later this year. Some LoRa users want support for more spreading factors and broader channels to cover more use cases.

In addition, some need narrower channels to handle co-existence on crowded 2.4-GHz bands. Others want to drive the accuracy of time stamps on packets down from about 25 microseconds today to about 30 nanoseconds to deliver location accuracy within 10 meters.

Perhaps most importantly, LoRa users are still waiting for lower-cost, integrated chipsets from Semtech licensees such as Microchip, Renesas, and STMicroelectronics. “Toward the end of this year, you will see sampling from a couple of them,” said Vivek Mohan, director of marketing for wireless products at Semtech.

The company also expects to announce licensees in China soon, mainly OEMs designing chips for their own use in the local market. So far, ZTE’s shutdown has not caused troubles for the LoRa initiative that it was spearheading in China, said Mohan, noting that networks have been live for more than a year in Shanghai and elsewhere with partners including China Unicom.

Semtech plans to release a new gateway chip in time for systems to ship next summer. It will support spreading factors 5 and 6 and more downlink channels for services such as bike sharing. Meanwhile, software-only solutions for more precise time-stamping and location are being deployed, he added.

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