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Licensed or unlicensed spectrum for cellular IoT? That is the question

Twitter: @nokianetworks

Self-driving cars. Refrigerators that order your groceries. Electricity grids that automatically regulate consumption. It seems that the future has finally arrived - and its powered by the Internet of Things.

The flood of new IoT devices and applications coming onto the market are made possible by the latest advances in connectivity. Unlicensed short-range technologies like ZigBee and long-range technologies like LoRa have allowed anyone with an idea to create IoT apps for mass market deployments. But licensed technologies like narrowband IoT (NB-IoT), LTE for Machine Type Communications (LTE-M) and Enhanced Coverage GSM (EC-GSM) are also gaining traction with operators offering IoT services through their existing cellular networks.

With so many licensed and unlicensed connectivity choices, it’s natural to consider whether there is a need for all of them. Certainly, when you look at the technical specifications for low-power wide area (LPWA) technologies, the differences are quite small.

But looking only at technical specifications would be missing the point of IoT. It’s not about the technology, it’s about the application that enhances our lives. And it can only enhance our lives if someone can bring it to market and sustain it. Therefore, we will see a vast variety of different business models with CSPs but also with enterprises in the IoT landscape.

A company wanting to launch a new IoT service has many non-technical factors to consider. The service may require careful management, in which case the priority is to own the network on which the service runs. The specific geography might take precedence and rule out connectivity options that aren’t available in that area. From a business-case perspective, there are obviously CAPEX and OPEX costs to evaluate: it’s expensive to deploy a new network but if you already own spectrum or a network, then it probably – but not always – makes financial sense to leverage it. But what about time-to-market? If it’s imperative that the service is launched quickly, then the IoT network availability is key when deciding, regardless of whether you own it and whether it’s licensed.

Business criteria such as these must be carefully weighed against technical considerations. It’s true that licensed spectrum technologies like LTE or 5G are the only options that can provide five-nines reliability and ultra-low latency for critical IoT applications in healthcare and road safety. LTE-M also has a clear advantage over LoRA where higher data rates are needed, for example in venue management. But in general, most IoT use cases can be technically covered by any LPWA technology. Smart metering, lost item finders, livestock management: LoRa, NB-IoT, LTE-M and EC-GSM can all provide an adequate quality of service for these applications.

So, business and technical considerations are of equal importance to IoT service providers and they will use whichever helps them succeed. For end-users, it’s entirely possible that an enterprise will rely on LTE or 5G for mission critical IoT use cases, and on LoRa for other IoT services.

Licensed and unlicensed connectivity options are, therefore, truly complementary and we believe that both are needed if the Internet of Things is to live up to its full potential.

Check out this short video on the need for licensed and unlicensed spectrum to enable the Internet of Things:

Share your thoughts on this topic by replying below – or join the Twitter discussion with @nokianetworks using #LTE #IoT

Adolfo Masini

About Adolfo Masini

As head of IoT Connectivity Nokia, Adolfo is responsible for the overall strategic direction and market introduction of end to end IoT mobile connectivity solutions. With over 30 years of experience in the telecommunications industry, he’s spent most of it providing infrastructure systems solutions to wireless, wireline and CATV service providers worldwide.

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