What is LPWAN Technology and how is it used? A guide for asset managers

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What does LPWAN stand for? Why do I need to know about LPWANs? Which LPWAN is best? Read on for an easily digestible overview with all you need to know.

LPWANs for Compliance

Traditional compliance testing relies on technicians going to each location one-by-one. This is an expensive and time consuming process involving human error and plenty of admin. 

At Safecility we help you navigate these obstacles through automated compliance reporting. Automating the admin and execution of compliance means time and money saved for you and your company. We achieve this by using LPWANs – Low Powered Wide Area Networks.

How do LPWANs work?

LPWANs are like motorways

Here at Safecility we use two types of LPWANs – Low Power Wide Area Networks – for our automated compliance IoT devices. As the name suggests, they help deploy IoT devices and sensors over a large area in a cost and energy efficient manner. These technologies are at the core of smart compliance and smart facilities management moving forward, and are especially useful when it comes to fire safety.

The LPWAN’s we use are:

1. NB-IoT – Narrowband IoT

2. LoRaWAN – Long Range Wide Area Network

These two are often pitted against each other, but it’s really a horses for courses situation. With connected devices worldwide projected to hit 125 billion by 2030, it’s important to understand how they work and what will work best for you.

A really important thing to understand before we dive into the world of LPWANs is the idea of licensed and unlicensed spectrums of radio frequency (RF). The electromagnetic spectrum used for almost every transmission of data is like a motorway. It covers massive areas and gets data from A to B. However, there are still only so many lanes we can drive in.

Data transmitted on the electromagnetic spectrum is much the same. It’s all well and good if you’re the only car in the lane, but too many cars means we run the risk of traffic and collisions. Too much data on one band means slower transmission, or even interference that stops transmission entirely.

So think of unlicensed spectrums as a road anyone can use, and licensed spectrums as a ‘members-only’ road which you have to pay to access (like a mobile network with a frequency band that only its members can use). Got all that? Good, it’s going to help our understanding as we dive deeper.

Local Network Access

LPWAN Do you need local internet access

Another thing to understand moving forward is one of the most common questions regarding LPWAN devices. Do they need local internet access to work? 

Well yes, and no. This is actually one of the big differences between NB-IoT and LoRaWAN. 

NB-IoT devices utilise 4G cellular towers and come with a SIM card installed for a yearly fee (much like your phone) that communicates directly to the cloud. They do not need access to a local network for the sensors to work and the SIM is tamper proof, which means better security and less work for your IT team. The main NBIoT network provider in the UK and Ireland is Vodafone, so you can be confident you’re in a well supported ecosystem.

Because NB-IoT is set up on this ‘private motorway’ so to speak, there’s no limit on the amount of data that can be sent. This means if it doesn’t transmit the first time, it can be sent again and again. 

Unlicensed spectrums such as those used by LoRaWAN have laws regarding repeats so if the data doesn’t send first time, it has a finite amount of tries to be sent, meaning it can sometimes be less successful.

LoRaWAN How does it work?

What is LoRaWAN

LoRaWAN is an open-source off-the-shelf communication protocol developed by Semtech. LoRaWAN uses unlicensed spectrums so anyone can set up their own network at a low cost, although outside of a few markets in Europe you’ll need to set up your own network gateway or hub.

This may sound like a hindrance but it’s actually an excellent alternative to WiFi for low power devices that need to be placed and connected throughout a building. IT departments may have security concerns about allowing a third party system on a local network, but setting up your own gateway creates a completely separate and secure network.

However, these can be an extra expense to deploy and if the gateway fails for any reason, the sensors can no longer communicate. Think of it like unplugging the router in your house.

The big advantages are the low cost and low power consumption (which in turn leads to further cost efficiency), as well as the flexibility offered. The lack of location permanency means they can be set up quickly at a location and moved around later if needs be, as opposed to NB-IoT systems which are more set.

The downside is transmission success. If you think back to the motorway analogy from earlier, because these bandwidths are open to everyone, data can be slowed down (like traffic) or even experience interference from other data transmissions on the same bandwidth, resulting in data loss. For information like temperature and humidity monitoring, delay in the transmission of sensor data is not the end of the world. However, for more critical data such as a fall monitor sensor in an elderly person’s home – transmission delays can be an issue.

NBIoT – How does it work?

What is NBIoT

NB-IoT was developed by the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) as part of their goal to standardize cellular systems and IoT devices to be interoperable and more reliable. It operates on licensed spectrum bands and overall is a more sophisticated system meaning users get higher performance levels that allow for more advanced features like routing, multicast, firmware broadcast and more. 

Furthermore, the 4G coverage means the devices work well indoors and in dense urban areas, with no interference or traffic issues like with LoRaWAN.

The negatives include greater power consumption and cost, and more difficulty in deployment than LoRaWAN devices.

NB-IoT will give you faster response times and better quality of service than LoRaWAN devices but with slightly higher licensing and operational expenses in the long run. 

On the balance of things, it is more costly but provides a better overall experience and more functionality.

Which LPWAN should I choose?

Whe you have a high density of devices LoRaWAN’s use of unlicensed spectrum, lower power consumption and operational costs makes it the cheaper of the two.

Furthermore, LoRaWAN’s chipset, gateway and cloud service ecosystem makes it good for those who desire full ownership of their infrastructure to operate in a single building or area (think University Campus or Smart Building).

In terms of deployment, LoRaWAN networks are super adaptable. They can be run on public, private or hybrid networks, indoors or outdoors and in dense urban areas. Many countries are committing to LoRaWAN with wide scale government sponsored roll out of gateways becoming more and more commonplace. This removes the headache of installing and managing your own gateway.

Combine this with the open-source technology and mobility of the devices and you’ve got yourself a really flexible system. However, it’s important to remember the potential for data and quality loss through high traffic and interference.

NB-IoT is better for commercial and consumer IoT settings that need connectivity at a regional, national or even global scale.

When it comes to cost, with a low density of devices spread over a wide area, there’s not much difference in the total cost of NBIoT vs LoraWAN. However, if you want to avoid having to install and maintain a gateway NBIoT has the edge.

This system is designed to make IoT deployment viable in situations or locations where it’s impractical or impossible to utilise an unlicensed network and its great in scenarios with no WiFi, Ethernet or Landlines nearby. 

This is where NB-IoT’s cellular connection comes into its own. Any area with a mobile network is functional for NB-IoT, so connectivity is good across Ireland, and good across about 50% of the UK.

As previously mentioned, it is more expensive, but offers lower latency, stronger security, higher data rates, and doesn’t require a gateway which can be troublesome and an extra cost to maintain.

In addition, you can expect more functionality, better security, higher data rates and lower latency.

LPWAN Infographic for Blog Post

We hope you’ve enjoyed this introductory guide to NB-IoT and LoRaWAN. As you can see, there’s no real superior option, it’s all about what fulfills your criteria best. Hopefully this guide has been able to help you find out, and take your first step to deploying either of these market leading systems. If you have any more questions or would like to chat about which LPWAN might be best for your situation you can contact us here

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