The recent announcement (11 June 2019) of a Roaming agreement between Proximus (Belgium) and Objenious (Bouygues Telecom – France), on the use of the LORAWAN public network of the two operators, is the opportunity to analyze the problem a global communication coverage for connected objects.
In this article, we review the different LPWAN networks available in Europe, and analyze options for global (multi-national) coverage today, in the near future and further afield.
LPWAN in a few words
LPWAN networks – or Low Power Wide Area Network – are one of the reasons for the rapid expansion of the Internet of Things. They allow communication of small amounts of data, at great distances, while consuming little energy. In the end, the LPWAN networks make it possible to have small, cheap sensors, operating up to 10-15 years on battery.
Transnational LPWAN coverage. Necessary ?
Popular uses of the Internet of Things today include smart metering (water, gas, energy, machinery …) and logistics (tracking deliveries, cold chain …). But also applications in smart building or smart cities.
If applications in transport and logistics have a natural need for global coverage – at least the neighboring countries of the starting point – one may wonder what is the wider interest for roaming agreements, as recently announced by Proximus and Bouygues. Other LORAWAN roaming agreements have already been announced in the past, as between KPN (Netherlands) and Orange (France).
A global LPWAN network is interesting, even if the objects connected to it do not move!
LPWAN Networks - overview of the main players ...
In the European market, 3 LPWAN network technologies dominate the market. LORAWAN, SIGFOX and NB-IOT. It should be noted that other technologies exist, and are activated in other regions of the world: Strij, Weightless, Ingenu, … But LORAWAN, SIGFOX and NB-IOT are undoubtedly the reference technologies today.
SigFox network coverage in Europe
Beyond the technical discussions to elect the best LPWAN technology – discussion that I leave to the experts 😉 -, the main argument of SigFox is its geographical coverage. 60 countries partially or totally covered, ie 5 Million KM2. A single network – but also a single operator -. No need for roaming agreement, since it is one and the same network!
LORAWAN network coverage in Europe
Many European countries have seen LORAWAN public networks deploy. An operator in Belgium and Luxembourg (Proximus), Switzerland (SwissCom) or the Netherlands (KPN). 2 LORAWAN operators in France (Orange and Bouygues) or in the United Kingdom (Connexin and IOT Networks). 3 public operators in Germany (Digimondo, Minol Zenner, Netzikon). And 4 operators in Italy (A2A Smart City, Axatel, Telemar, Unidata)! Profusion of LORAWAN operators in Europe. But most of these operators are not interconnected. Difficult for a sensor to switch from one network to another.
NB-IOT network coverage in Europe
The NB-IOT technology is the most recent, and is being rolled out across Europe. A quick reaction from the GSMA (Association of Telecom Operators) to the rise of LPWAN technology. These NB-IOT networks are not yet fully deployed everywhere. Orange Belgium was one of the first to offer national coverage. As with LORAWAN, there will be different NB-IOT operators in each country. In fact, most current GSM Operators deploy NB-IOT and / or LTE-Cat-M1.
Why need a global LPWAN coverage?
To understand the complexity of a multi-national coverage of a LORAWAN type network, it is necessary to understand how this technology works. A LORAWAN or SIGFOX sensor does not communicate with an Internet protocol (TCP-IP). LORAWAN and SIGFOX are two communications technologies operating on the ISM free frequency band. The operating principle is simple. The sensor broadcasts its data, which is collected by Gateways (Antenna), and aggregated by a Network Server. From this Network Server, the final application retrieves the data, usually via the Internet (Web Services, MQTT, Web Sockets).
To communicate with a LORAWAN or SIGFOX sensor, it is therefore necessary to integrate with the Network Server of the network operator
Functional requirements related to the IOT use case
Fleet Management and Asset Tracking are the main use cases of M2M (Machine-To-Machine), the former name given to IOT today. All applications related to the geolocalisation of goods or people remain one of the main verticals of the Internet of Things. Transport, Logistics … And of course, in this area, difficult to do without an international IOT network coverage!
Contractual issue of international use LORAWAN
Another dimension to consider, which may seem secondary, but not at all. This is the contractual aspect. As soon as a company wants to deploy connected objects in several countries, even if these objects are static, it must negotiate contracts with local operators. Financial conditions, Service Level Agreement, … This can quickly become a real obstacle to a global deployment, because of the disparity of offers and solutions: price, level of service, geolocation service, sensor provisioning …
Roaming must therefore allow, as was the case in M2M, to negotiate a single contract with an operator offering international data coverage.
International technical integration issue LORAWAN
Unlike NB-IOT, which offers a “WEB” connectivity (TCP or UDP protocol), SigFox and LORAWAN require to recover the data of the sensors through a Network Server If SigFox has a unique network (and Therefore, the LORAWAN case is much more complex: each operator offers its APIs to access the data and interact with the sensors, which ultimately means developing as many IT integrations as possible. has different operators in the countries where we want to be active A major effort, and a cost that can quickly become prohibitive!
The LORAWAN roaming must allow to realize only one integration (in his country of origin for example), and to be able to deploy its sensors internationally …
Analysis of the Roaming Agreement between Proximus and Bouygues (Objenious): LORAWAN Passive Roaming
These two operators have built their LORAWAN networks with the same technology partner for the core network – the LORAWAN Network Server -: Actility. This has undoubtedly facilitated the technical implementation of roaming.
There are several methods for implementing LORAWAN roaming. “Hand-over roaming” and “Passive Roaming.” Hand-over roaming is the method that comes closest to roaming with its smartphone.The sensor is connected to the roaming operator’s network, but the management remains at home. This type of roaming requires sensors with the recent standard LORAWAN 1.1 Except most of the LORAWAN sensors currently deployed are LORAWAN 1.0 Therefore, one can only work in Passive Roaming, available in 2 variants: Stateful and Stateless: For the Stateful Passive Roaming, the network of the country of origin must authorize all the sensors on the Host networks (that is to say 100 of millions of requests of authorization …) .In Stateless Passive Roaming, all the messages are transmitted since the Local host to the home country operator – an abundance of messages, without knowing if the sensors are allowed …
LORAWAN Passive Roaming, a solution chosen by Proximus and Objenious, is clearly a transient solution that will not support the exponential growth of LORAWAN sensor deployments. Nevertheless, it represents a necessary first step in the development of transnational projects in the Internet of Things.
SigFox and LORAWAN - The complexity of the frequencies used!
While SigFox offers a network of nearly 60 countries, and roaming agreements are concluded between operators LORAWAN, we are still far from the dream of a global coverage for the Internet of Things. The barrier is related to the frequency band used: the ISM free frequency band (Instruments, Scientific, Medical). Indeed, the allocated frequency bands are not the same in all regions of the world. 863-868 Mhz in Europe. 915 MHz in the United States and South America. And 923 MHz in Asia. This remains, at present, a major constraint, as most sensors are configured to communicate on a single frequency band. Impossible then to make them work, in roaming, in the whole world! This constraint applies to both SigFox and LORAWAN.
But then, SigFox is the best option?
If one could conclude, reading this article, that SigFox offers the best solution, it must nevertheless relativize. SigFox is a unique operator. Therefore, if the country is not covered by SigFox, it will not be possible to use SigFox sensors locally. In addition, companies like to have the choice, and to be able to compete. With SigFox, no competition. A single operator, who decides prices (and its evolution), the level of service, features offered .. With the risk, in case of failure of SigFox, to see disappearing the entire service. At the moment, SigFox is still not a profitable company … We have heard about big Smart Cities rollout projects, where SigFox was not selected, due to the lack of visibility on the very long term (15- 20 years).
And if the future of the LPWAN networks went through the Satellite ?!
This may seem surprising. And yet several consortia have formed and work on low-speed communication, low energy consumption via satellites. The primary objective: sparsely populated areas, where it is economically impossible to deploy a network of antennas LORAWAN, SigFox, 4G (NB-IOT …). We think of desert regions, Africa, Siberia, and so on.
One example among others: Lacuna Space works, in partnership with Semtech (the designer of LORA technology), to develop a LORA-based Space Gateway, already deployed in orbit with EMISAT, with successful tests in South Africa , Netherlands, Japan, Slovenia, India and Reunion Island. The idea here is that the LORAWAN sensor could communicate directly with a LORAN Gateway, no longer installed on a terrestrial mast, but placed on a satellite constellation in low orbit.
Some examples of other projects:
- SigFox has signed an alliance with EutelSat in 2018 for the deployment of a network of nano-satellites.
- China plans to launch 72 nano-satellites for the Internet of Things
- Russia will deploy Gonets-2 satellites for the same purpose
- Objenious (Bouygues Telecom) has teamed up with Kineis for the same purpose
While some projects provide for specific satellite communication for IOT, others plan to directly support LORAWAN in a communication through a Low Earth Orbit Satellite. Case to follow …