Depending on whose forecasts you believe, there could be 20 or 50 billion connected 'things' by 2020. Some kind of communications network will be needed to support all those connections. Today, cellular networks are the technology of choice for much of the Internet of Things (IoT), but they face increasing competition from a variety of radio technologies designed specifically for connecting IoT devices.
Cellular technologies were developed primarily to support voice and broadband data communications with mobile devices and are not ideal for the low power, low data rate, fixed location needs of many IoT applications. Also, they use dedicated spectrum access granted under licences costing, in some cases, billions of dollars. Many of the new technologies designed for IoT operate in bands to which access is freely available.
These shortcomings have created opportunities which are being exploited by a number of proprietary radio technologies, several of which are already operating in Australia, or soon will be.
A startup National Narrowband Network (NNN) Communications is planning a wireless network based on LoRaWAN technology for connecting IoT devices, and is starting trials in August with a network of 10 base stations covering an area of 50-100 square kilometres on Sydney's North Shore, with customers across a number of IoT application markets.
The LoRaWAN (Long Range Wide-Area Network) technology is being promoted by the LoRa Alliance, backed by IBM and others. It made its debut at the CeBit show in Las Vegas in January and was formally launched at Mobile World Congress in March. In Australia, the technology operates in the class licensed 918MHz-928MHz band, which is free to use but potentially subject to interference from other users.
NNN co-founder, David Spence, told ZDNet that the company was "getting a lot interest from all sorts of sectors".
Sensus bringing FlexNet to Australia US company Sensus is planning to bring its proprietary FlexNet technology to Australia, and in July it announced a partnership with BAI, a company that owns a large number of radio tower sites around Australia, including many of those for Australia's cellular networks. It requires dedicated spectrum and has secured access to 500MHz spectrum for a trial in Victoria.
Another company with a proprietary IoT network technology that will be a force to reckoned with (although it has not yet announced any plans for Australia), is French company Sigfox. In February it secured investment of US$110 million and said it would use the funds to roll out networks in the United States, Latin America, Japan and South Korea. Its network already covers France, Spain, the Netherlands and 10 of the UK's larger cities, and the company says it hopes to be in 60 countries over the next five years. It has already filed a patent application in Australia.
Investors in Sigfox's February fund raising included major cellular network operators NTT Docomo, SK Telecom, and Telefonica, so it seems that some at least are hedging their bets.
Australia also has a home-grown IoT radio network developed by Sydney-based Taggle Systems. The company has been operating for the past three years and specialises in water meter monitoring. Its technology operates in the class-licensed instrumentation, scientific and medical band, so has to be able to tolerate interference from other users.
"Interference creates huge problems, and we have a radio team that is constantly refining our receiver architecture to deal with it," Taggle Systems CEO Chris Andrews told ZDNet.
Andrews said that, for some applications, very long battery life is the overriding consideration and he does not believe cellular will ever be able to match radio technologies designed specifically for IoT.
"On our network, devices can transmit every hour and operate for 12 years on a single AA battery over the same distance as the cellular network," he said.
Meanwhile the cellular industry has recognised the technical shortcomings of today's networking technologies and is working to address these. A variant of LTE for machine to machine, LTE-M, is under development and expected to be commercially available in 2017. It will enable the manufacture of lower-cost LTE chipsets for IoT applications, introduce changes that will extend the battery life of remote devices, and increase the range of LTE networks for IoT applications.
Further down the track 5G technology, expected to make its commercial debut around 2020, is being developed from the outset to have features specific to the needs of IoT.
"The problem for cellular operators is that the underlying cost structure of cellular is not helpful for IoT," mobile telecommunications consultant, Professor Reg Coutts, told ZDNet. "The current levels of latency are too high, but that is being addressed in the next development, and in the 5G specifications."
Coutts says that, eventually 5G could become the dominant technology.
"I suspect there will be a period of time in the sun for these proprietary networks that can compete with current cellar, but eventually 5G will win," he said.
Spence said there will continue to be a role for technologies like LoRa. "There will be all sorts of technologies to suit different IoT requirements. There is a great push for speed and mobility in 5G and you can't provide a long-range low-power service at the same time. You can't be all things to all people."
Instead, Spence believes that the mobile operators will establish their own networks for IoT using dedicated technologies like LoRa.
"All the mobile operators have got teams looking at various types of networks and I think we will start seeing deployments inside 12 months," he said.
Andrews agrees that mobile operators will become major players by rolling out networks based on technologies like LoRa that are designed for IoT applications. Taggle also expects to eventually abandon its proprietary technology in favour of a global standard.
"Low powered wide area networks are hugely more efficient than LTE-M will ever be. I think they will co-exist very happily and I think you will see Telstra, Vodafone, and Optus rolling out both over the next five years," he said.
"We are looking at LoRa being the next generation of radio we use in our network. We would manage the upgrade path for our customers. We see real benefit for our clients in moving to a technology that is a global standard."
Meanwhile, telcos in Australia and elsewhere are moving to boost their IoT credentials. Telstra has announced that it will start selling wearable technology in Telstra stores. Vodafone Australia, which has operated an M2M business unit for several years has rebranded this as Vodafone IoT.
Telstra's comments certainly leave open the possibility of using networks other than cellular for IoT. A Telstra spokesman told ZDNet: "We are committed to building our IoT capabilities and partnerships to enable our customers to leverage the full potential of the IoT, including network superiority, device management platforms, and storage and management of the huge volumes of data generated by these devices."
Vodafone and Optus were asked for comments on their IoT plans, but did not respond by publication time.
Overseas telcos are making much bigger statements of their commitment to IoT. Canadian telco Telus, in December 2014 opened an IoT application marketplace, and Japanese telco NTT Com announced in early August the opening of an IoT office.