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IoT
5 minutes read

What is LPWAN? IoT Technology Explained

by Jose Gomez
IoT
5 minutes read

The Internet of Things requires a network solution in order to keep all of the sensors and devices connected to the Internet; this is where LPWAN technology steps in. LPWAN stands for low-power wide-area network. This is a broad term that refers to a class of network technologies that first started to emerge in 2013. 

The main issue presented by the proliferation of IoT devices and applications is efficient data communication over a wide-area network. Traditional network solutions like telephony, satellite, and Wi-Fi use a lot of power. If you want to connect a large number of devices and sensors to the Internet, it can be costly to do so using these less energy-efficient networks. Let’s get a better understanding of LPWAN technology and how it is a major benefit to IoT architecture

What is LPWAN?

Low-power wide-area networks are a class of technologies that come in many different shapes and sizes. These area network technologies were designed to connect low-bandwidth devices with low bit rates over wide areas. Specifically, this network technology was developed to be a cost-effective network for IoT and machine-to-machine applications. LPWANs operate at a lower cost than traditional mobile networks due to their greater power efficiency. Low-power wide-area networks are also able to support more devices over a larger area than traditional networking solutions. This makes LPWANs a great choice for the data communication needs of IoT and Machine Learning applications that utilize a lot of connected devices and sensors. 

The Different Types of LPWAN

There are many different LPWAN solutions and technologies available. They differ in operating range, data communication limits, and the way they handle data packets. However, there are two main LPWANs that dominate the marketplace:

  • LoRa
  • NB-IoT

The main difference between these two is that one is a non-cellular technology (LoRa), and the other (NB-IoT) utilizes existing cellular technology. While these two standards may appear to conflict, they both may be able to find a solid place in the LPWAN market since their characteristics and use cases vary pretty significantly. 

LoRa

LoRaWAN is an open-standard networking layer created and maintained by the LoRa Alliance. The LoRa Alliance is a group of more than 400 companies spread across four continents. Some of the major companies who helped found the LoRa Alliance include:

  • IBM
  • Semtech
  • Cisco
  • MicroChip
  • Swisscom
  • Belgacom

While LoRaWAN is an open-network, businesses and organizations need to purchase a LoRa chip in order to implement LoRaWAN. LoRa chips are only manufactured by Semtech. LoRa is a two-layer solution. There is the physical layer which is referred to as LoRa. This is the chip. LoRaWAN refers to the media access control layer or the software that is put on the chip to enable networking. Since LoRa is an open-network, companies like Symphony Link can create their own media access control layer that can be used instead of LoRaWAN. However, the LoRa chip is still required. 

LoRa is designed for uplink data communication. Data packets from sensors and devices are sent to a gateway over multiple different frequencies so that data communications do not interfere or collide with other data communication. Spreading information across multiple frequencies has the additional benefit of increasing the capacity of the data gateway. 

NB-IoT

Narrowband-IoT is a 3GPP standard that operates on the existing cellular infrastructure. NB-IoT utilizes the 200 Khz frequency band that was once operated by the GSM system. This technology is quickly being adopted in IoT applications because of its overall low cost. NB-IoT chips have simpler construction than LoRa chips, making them cheaper to manufacture and implement. Additionally, the NB-IoT waveform is simpler and uses less power. 

These features make NB-IoT wide-area networks ideal for applications with a large number of fixed assets that don’t require a large volume of data communication. One of the emerging applications where NB-IoT technology will be extremely useful is smart cities. This technology is already being used in a variety of ways, including:

  • Public lighting 
  • Water meters and pipes 
  • Parking management 
  • Gas detectors 
  • Smart door locks 
  • And more

NB-IoT solutions have a big potential for HiTech applications and the future of urban planning and development. Large enterprises with static assets in the field could also revolutionize their processes by utilizing IoT sensors and an NB-IoT network. 

LTE-M

We would be remiss if we didn’t mention LTE-M. This is another LPWAN that utilizes the existing cellular network. It differs from NB-IoT because it utilizes the LTE cellular network, but LTE-M is also a 3GPP standard. LTE-M has higher data communication rates than NB-IoT and LoRA, but LTE is mainly a U.S. technology, and it is less energy efficient than the two major LPWAN standards. Still, this technology could be beneficial in data-rich settings that utilize roaming assets like drones. 

Final Thoughts

The Internet of Things is fundamentally changing the way we do business and interact with the world around us. IoT applications need a solid, cost-effective network in order to function to their full potential. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi may work well for personal IoT devices, but industrial IoT devices and applications require more efficient wide-area networks. 

Currently, NB-IoT and LoRA are the dominant technologies in the LPWAN market. Both of these network options have advantages and optimal uses that allow both of them to coexist for the time being. If you’re unsure which one is best for your organization’s needs, reach out to a development partner who can help you take stock of the technologies you are using and choose an option that best meets your needs. 

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