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As 5G Nears, IoT Connectivity Remains A 'Wild West'

'We're dealing with a very different world where choices are long-term Investments,' a Forrester analyst says of the big decisions companies need to make in the 'wild west' of IoT connectivity options, which range from LoRa and SigFox to NB-IoT and LTE-M.

With the first 5G networks starting to come online, cellular carriers are pitching the wireless technology as a game changer for the Internet of Things, enabling a greater device density, higher throughput and lower latency that will provide transformative results.

"Looking ahead, 5G will be more than just an evolution in wireless," Verizon proclaimed in a statement last year. "It will be a step change that will impact the world of IoT as significantly as it will the rest of the consumer and enterprise communications spaces."

[Related: 5 Companies That Are Racing To Build IoT Networks]

But as Sprint and others have admitted, 5G is still in its infancy, meaning that IoT will continue to rely on a wider range of connectivity types for the years to come.

Andre Kindness, a principal analyst at research firm Forrester, called IoT connectivity a "wild west" where there are a variety of options to choose from.

One of the major challenges, he said, is that unlike the rest of the tech industry where devices are refreshed every three to seven years, many IoT deployments will need to last anywhere from 10 to 25 years, making the decision of which connectivity type to adopt a big one.

"We're dealing with a very different world where choices are long-term Investments," he told CRN in an interview for IoT Week 2019.

Many of these connectivity types provide low-power, wide-area networks, also known as LPWAN, which Forrester predicts will account for 60 percent of long-distance connections by 2025 and are optimized for long-distance communication, low-power consumption and low-cost chipsets.

In a paper, Kindness wrote on the LPWAN market last year, the researcher laid out the most important factors companies should consider when looking at IoT connectivity: chipset costs, operational model, geographic coverage, device availability, power consumption and 5G availability.

But Kindness added that buying IoT devices is "not a technology decision" and is instead a "fit-form-function decision," where other requirements, such as whether a sensor is vibration resistant, ultimately determine what kind of connectivity will be used.

"The business world is making some decisions that go beyond just what's the longest distance," he said.

When it comes to LPWAN technologies available on the market today, there are proprietary technologies using unlicensed spectrum like LoRa and SigFox and then licensed cellular technologies, which range from LTE-M to NB-IoT. While SigFox runs and operates its own network, multiple companies are using LoRa to build out their own interoperable networks while others are taking a different approach to IoT connectivity

How One Company Is Crowdsourcing IoT Networks

One company that has championed LoRa to build out its own network is Senet, a Portsmouth, N.H.-based company that is taking a multi-pronged approach. The company started out building its own LoRaWAN network of gateways, but it now also relies on customers and partners to expand.

All the gateways, whether owned by Senet, customers or partners, are connected virtually, which has allowed the company to build what it calls a low-power, wide-area virtual network. That means companies can tap into gateways owned by Senet, customers or partners all over the world, no roaming agreements required. In return, gateway operators get a cut of revenue as a way to incentive further expansion.

"What that ends up being is a way to crowdsource the global IoT network," Bruce Chatterley, CEO of Senet, told CRN.

Compared to cellular IoT networks, Chatterley said LoRa has lower recurring costs, as well as a lower total cost of ownership. That's because the LoRa standard was designed to last a long time, eliminating the need to change out chipsets every few years, which happens in the cellular world during transitions to new standards like 3G and 4G, according to Chatterley.

"It's a permanent protocol, and the evolution of the protocol doesn't require device changes. It requires firmware updates over the air," Chatterley said.

Not everyone agrees that LoRa has lower costs, however.

Will Hart, senior director of product for Particle, a San Francisco-based IoT startup that provides LTE CAT-M1 modules, said one of the major benefits of cellular networks are that they are managed services, cutting down on the total cost of ownership for the customer.

"You're just paying for someone else to manage the network as opposed to managing the network yourself," Hart said. He added that companies can mitigate the recurring device costs on cellular networks by creating new revenue streams.

Chatterley said that while customers can manage their own networks, Senet can manage the networks on their behalf through its cloud-based software.

"Senet takes care of all of the quality of service metrics, the settlements, the clearing, the rating, all that stuff in our marketplace capability in the cloud," Chatterley said.

A New Kind Of Connectivity For Industrial IoT

BehrTech, a Toronto-based company, is looking to shake up IoT connectivity on the industrial side using an LPWAN protocol called MIOTY that CEO Albert Behr says has much lower interference than LoRa, allowing companies to make wireless connections in deep indoor and underground environments.

"We are in a completely different category in terms of the terms of packet loss. We are a fraction of LoRa, especially as it scales," Behr said.

The company recently announced that it is commercializing the MIOTY protocol — which is licensed exclusively from the Fraunhofer Institute — with MYTHINGS, a new software platform designed to provide long-range, low-power communication for industrial IoT deployments.

Outside of high interference immunity, another major differentiator is that MYTHINGS is a software overlay, meaning that the company can work with standard gateways and sensors, Behr said. That means the platform can be easily integrated into legacy environments.

"How many sensors do we have to replace? Zero," Behr said, describing the work BehrTech did with a mining company. "We basically Jacked into the [power-line communication] and it was done and two hours later the customer telemetry for the first time in 20 years."

While Senet provides the option for companies to run their own private networks, that is the entire focus for BehrTech, which is promoting the strategy as a way for companies to have full control and authority of their devices, network and data.

Behr said multiple customers and partners have come to BehrTech because they want a connectivity solution that can reach massive scale and let them keep their own data and existing equipment.

"Everyone is come over to us for the same reason, over and over again," he said. "'I want my data. I want to use my existing equipment, and I want to be able to do it with something so that in 10 years, 15 years, if you're not there, it's still supported platform.'"

Kindness, the analyst at Forrester, has taken a cautious view of the broader LPWAN landscape and said it will take longer for it to mature and become more viable. That's why he suggests companies look at shorter-distance connectivity options like ZigBee or Bluetooth and backhauling it to Wi-Fi or 4G. Ultimately, according to Kindness, companies will need to make sure that whatever IoT connectivity they end up choosing, they will need to make sure it receives long-term support.

"That is something that we in the technology world haven't had to deal with," he said. " When you make a choice, you're going to be dealing with it for a long period of time."

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