Jarich: Sigfox, LoRa, Ingenu: Are today's LPWAN upstarts tomorrow's WiMAX?

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Peter Jarich

WiMAX.  Even if you've paid attention to the success it's had in aerospace applications, the term likely brings one thing to mind: failure.  After being hyped as THE technology that would bring affordable mobile broadband to the masses, the WiMAX ecosystem spectacularly failed to deliver on its promises.  It's not fair to say that the only people who made money on WiMAX were industry analysts and trade show planners…but it's not far from the truth.

In other words, when something gets compared to WiMAX it's probably not a compliment.

But that's exactly what's happening with IoT-focused LPWAN (low-power WAN) technologies like those from Sigfox, LoRa and Ingenu.  You've heard it in the media.  You heard it from some of my fellow industry analysts.  You've heard it from me going back a year or so.  Just as inflated expectations around WiMAX fizzled out not long after the technology began to pick up steam, the long-term future of new LPWAN ecosystems is increasingly getting questioned.  And while repetition doesn't make something true, there are real reasons to believe that there's something here.  Well, maybe.   

To be fair, the analogy isn't all negative.  While the buzz around new LPWAN technologies doesn't approach what we used to see around WiMAX, it's impossible to ignore.  Why?  Low-power, low-cost, wide area technologies, leveraging low-cost (no cost) spectrum and available in the "here and now" address burgeoning IoT use cases thanks to cost, power and coverage efficiencies.  They're solving a very real demand in the same way that WiMAX promised to make mobile broadband commonplace.  In many ways, they're creating markets that might not exist without them.  What's more, like WiMAX, these technologies are doing so from an outsider's perspective, not waiting for the entrenched, old-school, cellular industry to catch up.  All of this has led to burgeoning ecosystems and even a few high-profile launches from mainline cellular operators. 

Taking off the rose-colored glasses for a moment, however, the comparison between today's LPWAN players and WiMAX is largely driven by a number of less-favorable similarities…or predicted similarities. Again, unless you've been living under a rock or trying to be some sort of smart aleck (both things I've been accused of), you don't generally talk about WiMAX in a positive light.  Instead, you recognize that "outsiders" didn't bring the scale or resources necessary to drive a competitive WiMAX ecosystem in the face of global, mobile broadband standards including HSPA and LTE.  And if history is any indication, there's no shortage of reasons to worry for the long-term future of LPWAN upstarts too.

-        Operators Love Standards. It's not clear that that telecom service providers will dominate the IoT access business, but their know-how and network assets put them in a good position.  And, right or wrong, they like global, industry standards.  Standards bring interoperability, scale, and cost efficiencies.  It's what's worked for them.  It's what they know.  It's not necessarily what they get with today's non-3GPP LPWAN options.  In the case of WiMAX, they even had a global standard at their disposal, but still didn't get what they wanted!  

-        Commitments vs. Threats.  To say that carriers are committed to global standards doesn't mean that they ignore everything else.  New, emerging, non-standard technologies are always on the radar…especially where they can be used to drive the development of standards-based technologies an operator really cares about.  Remember when Vodafone, reportedly frustrated with the pace of LTE commercialization, talked up its interest in WiMAX?  No?  You're in luck.  I think there was a FierceWireless article on that.  As operators with mobile broadband networks launch dedicated LPWAN technologies, it's easy to assume a long-term commitment is implied.  History, however, suggests these launches could just as well be aimed at speeding up the development of other technologies that could take their place.

-        Something Better Is Coming.  If feigned interest in WiMAX might have been aimed at speeding up the development of LTE, we all know what the analog is here: NB-IoT.  Cellular network evolutions including EC-GSM, LTE Cat 1 and LTE-M are all positioned as solutions for supporting the cost and density demands critical to scaling IoT.  NB-IoT, however, looks to be most direct competitor to folks like Sigfox, LoRa and Ingenu to the extent it scales down to data rates (and costs) to an extent that the other evolutions don't.  With pre-commercial trials last year, it looks like we can expect NB-IoT solutions later this year or sometime next year. That's not today, but it's also not too long into the future.  It's the type of timeframe an operator might be able to live with, particularly if they have other technologies they can play with in the interim.

Sound like supposition?  It might be if carriers involved in LPWAN deployments hadn't already said that they're keeping their options open, committed to 3GPP evolutions like NB-IoT in the medium-term and IoT-focused 5G capabilities in the long-term.

But, is there more to the story?  Again, the answer is: maybe.  You see, it depends on a number of things.  How important is interoperability to IoT rollouts given the discrete nature of many deployments?  How much interop is needed to drive a robust LPWAN ecosystem? Aren't those ecosystems already developing nicely?  How long will NB-IoT commercialization actually take?  Longer than promised?  Will NB-IoT deliver cost efficiencies over today's cost-reduced LPWAN technologies?  Since every IoT use case comes with its own requirements, won't operators need to support them with a diverse set of technologies anyway? 

In the long-term, none of this may matter.  If operators find that their LTE networks can support massive IoT use cases with incremental investment, we will get to a point where the need for any other infrastructure won't matter in many cases.  Sure, you'll still need satellite coverage at sea, or bespoke networks in remote areas, but even some of those use cases can be served by LTE.  Just look at what AT&T is doing with Nokia.  Heck, it doesn't even matter if one network really can support every IoT use case if operators just believe that to be the case.  That gives LPWAN competitors a limited window to sell their value as more than just a stalking horse. 

Peter Jarich is the VP of Consumer and Infrastructure at Current Analysis. Follow him on Twitter: @pnjarich.