U.S. Cellular to lean on LoRa in IoT efforts

Rogue Ales & Spirits 2017 fall hop harvest
U.S. Cellular is chasing the agriculture opportunity in the IoT. (Rogue Ales & Spirits)

U.S. Cellular has announced that it will team up with a company called IoT America to sell internet-of-things services primarily to agricultural companies across its 23-state coverage area.

Interestingly, IoT America’s business relies heavily on the deployment of LoRa network technology for IoT applications in remote areas. Thus, U.S. Cellular is joining a small but growing number of cellular operators embracing a low-power wide-area network (LPWAN) technology that sits definitively outside the 3GPP’s standards for wireless networks in licensed spectrum.

“While we are primarily a cellular shop, our deal with IoT Amerca does enable technologies including LoRa,” confirmed Scott Scheuber, director of U.S. Cellular’s emerging products and business solutions. “We do feel that there is value in that diversity” of network technology.

Scheuber explained that U.S. Cellular—the nation’s fifth largest wireless network operator with roughly 5 million customers—plans to engage with potential agriculture customers in the IoT. He said the company would connect those potential customers with IoT America, which would then work with those customers to deploy specific IoT solutions for their agricultural businesses. Scheuber said that a big part of IoT America’s business involves deploying LoRa networks in locations where customers need low-cost IoT connections.

So what’s the benefit to U.S. Cellular? Scheuber said that the company could provide backhaul connections or other connections for IoT America’s LoRa network deployments.

“In the IoT space you have to be flexible,” he said, adding that the agreement “does accelerate our ability to deploy agriculture-based solutions.”

Scheuber declined to provide specifics, including revenue and customer numbers, for U.S. Cellular’s IoT business, which primarily uses the company’s LTE network. He said that U.S. Cellular has tested LTE M network technology for IoT applications and is in the process of testing NB-IoT network technology for IoT applications.

U.S. Cellular’s embrace of LoRa solutions for the IoT is the newest development in the growing LPWAN space. Such networks promise to connect IoT services at slower speeds and at lower costs than standard LTE networks. Indeed, AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile are in various stages of deploying or operating LTE M and NB-IoT networks in order to address the market.

But LTE M and NB-IoT aren’t the only options on the LPWAN field. Companies like Senet, Sigfox and Comcast’s MachineQ currently offer their own LPWAN networks, positioning the offerings as cheaper and more flexible than cellular operators’ LPWAN networks. And this is where LoRa sits: Backed by the LoRa Alliance, Senet, MachineQ and others have deployed LoRa networks for IoT applications that challenge cellular providers.

However, like U.S. Cellular, some cellular operators are also employing LoRa technology in select applications. KPN in the Netherlands, Orange in France and SoftBank in Japan are among the cellular operators that have invested in LoRa. And in the United States, Inland Cellular teamed with Senet for a LoRa deployment, and Sprint has an IoT agreement with LoRa supporter myDevices.