LPWA: The low-power, wide-area network technology

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LPWA technologies have been developed for IoT products to enable wireless communication at low-power consumption but long-range. As the Internet of Things technology evolves, low-power consumption for electronic devices and products is increasingly important. We took a look at the role LPWA plays in this.

The history of LPWA technology

LPWA (low-power, wide-area), called low-power wide-area network in German, does not refer to a specific technology standard but is a generic term for any network protocol designed for lower-power wireless communication than other networks as LTE, UMTS, or GSM. These network protocols are designed for Internet of Things products and machine-to-machine communications because they usually don't need the same speed and bandwidth as cellular devices. However, they do require high reliability. In addition, LPWA communicates over longer distances than other low-power protocols such as Bluetooth or NFC. It means that you can still achieve along-range with low energy consumption of the end devices and consequently low operating costs.

LPWA technology has been around since 2013, and the wireless industry association GSMA established LPWA as the preferred technology for IoT devices in 2015 as part of the definition of some LPWA network standards such as NB-IoT and LTE-M. This helped network operators meet the specific requirements of IoT applications in terms of power consumption, cost, and network coverage. At the same time, the LoRa Alliance was formed to promote the further development of the LoRaWAN (Long Range Wide Area Network) network protocol used in many IoT platforms.

Which wireless communication protocols are available for IoT and M2M communication?

There are currently several LPWA networks. Some of the leading technologies include:

  • LTE-M: Considered one of the first generations of LPWA wireless technologies, LTE-M (also known as LTE-MTC) leverages existing LTE networks to provide highly efficient connectivity on multiple GSM bands with extended coverage indoors and underground. Thus, LTE-M significantly reduces equipment complexity and the need for modules and variants.
  • NB-IoT: Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) extends the cost and energy efficiency of LTE-M to large fleets of up to 50,000 IoT devices per NB-IoT cell. In addition, NB-IoT increases capacity to support many new connections, using only a portion of the available spectrum. It minimizes power consumption and enables a battery life of more than ten years. NB-IoT penetrates deep underground and into enclosed spaces, providing 20+dB indoor coverage.
  • Sigfox: Currently, Sigfox is one of the more extensive LPWA networks. It uses an unlicensed frequency in the 868 MHz or 902 MHz bands. Since it is an ultra-narrowband radio transmission, it offers an extended range with a low data transmission rate. Each message is 100 Hz wide with transmission rates of 100 or 600 bits per second. Communication back to the device is limited, which is a disadvantage for bidirectional communication.
  • LoRa: LoRaWAN™ is an LPWAN technology standard targeted explicitly at battery-powered devices. LoRa enables easy interoperability between IoT solutions without the need for complex local installations. Since LoRa devices operate without SIMs or MIMs for encryption and ID authentication, they require an additional layer of digital security.
  • Weightless SIG: Weightless is an open, less commercial standard that operates in the unlicensed spectrum, independent of network operators and hardware vendors. There is Weightless-W, which uses the unlicensed spectrum between the frequencies of TV stations. Weightless-N uses an unlicensed narrowband protocol, and Weightless-P uses the 12.5 kHz narrowband range. Weightless SIG provides bidirectional communications.
  • Ingenu: With a range of 3 to 6.5 miles, Ingenu has a Random Phase Multiple Access (RPMA) technology. This technology operates in the 2.4 GHz spectrum. While it can be used in many different countries, it is susceptible to interference from other devices that use the same spectrum, such as Bluetooth or WiFi.

LPWA for IoT applications and machine-to-machine communication

Since LPWA networks have limited bandwidth, they are not suitable for various commercial and private applications such as audio, video, or text messages. As a result, LPWA networks are used almost exclusively in Internet of Things devices and machine-to-machine communications. Typical applications are currently located mainly in the smart city and industrial sectors. These include parking management, which uses LPWA technologies mainly because of their low power consumption. LPWA is also used in the area of water meters and pipelines. Since some of these modules are located far below the earth's surface, LPWA technologies are helpful because of their long range. LPWA technology is also used for intelligent pallets - both for long-distance communication during transport and long battery life. LPWA is also frequently used for street and path lighting due to its low energy consumption, the long distances of up to 50 kilometers, in some cases even up to 800 kilometers, and the low demand for transmission bandwidth.

5G is not an alternative to LPWA

Most IoT solutions require wide-area networks with low power consumption, which is why 5G will not replace LPWA technologies in the future. In large IoT projects, LPWA is often combined with various other mobile network technologies. Some LPWA technologies are in different stages of development or deployment, and other technologies will likely be developed until dominant standards emerge or standard specifications are merged. Other LPWA technologies include GreeOFDM from GreenWaves Technologies, ThingPark Wireless, or Symphony Link from Link Labs.

Find labs for LPWA testing

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