LPWAN Technologies Comparison #1: Top 10 Criteria for A Successful Implementation

Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWAN) represent the fastest growing IoT communication technology and are a key driver for global IoT connections. With various LPWAN solutions and vendors available today, choosing the right technology for your IoT projects is no easy task. To help you select the right solution, we’re doing a two-part educational blog series. In our first post, we discuss the top 10 criteria for choosing the best LPWAN technology based on your use cases and needs.

1. Reliability

The importance of industry-grade reliability, especially in mission-critical applications cannot be overstated. High reception rate and minimal packet loss eliminate the need to resend messages, even in unfavorable conditions. This ensures important data arrives quickly while at the same time, enhancing power efficiency.

For LPWAN technologies operating in the increasingly congested, license-free spectrum, interference resilience is a prerequisite to ensure high reliability. An LPWAN’s technical design determines its ability to avoid interferers or packet collisions when the traffic is high, thereby improving overall reception rate.

Read our previous blog on technical approaches to ensure interference resilience in LPWAN.

2. Security

Message confidentiality, authenticity, and integrity are core elements of network security. Multi-layer, end-to-end encryption is central to protect the confidentiality of your messages against eavesdropping and potential breaches.

Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) is a lightweight, powerful cryptographic algorithm for data encryption in IoT networks. Typically, 128-bit AES can be used to establish network-level security for data communications over the air interface – from end nodes to the base station. At the same time, Transport Layer Security (TLS) protocol provides a complementary security layer to protect IP-based data transfer to the cloud.

To confirm message authenticity and integrity, a message authentication code should be computed and integrated into every message sent. This ensures only valid devices can communicate over your network and messages are not tampered or altered during transmission.

3. Network Capacity

A large network capacity allows you to scale with your growing demand in data acquisition points, without compromising Quality-of-Service. Furthermore, as the radio range is almost identical across LPWAN technologies, network capacity becomes an important indicator of infrastructure footprint. The more end devices and daily messages a single base station can support, the less infrastructure you’ll need.

Efficient use of the limited radio spectrum, or spectrum efficiency, is important in achieving a large network capacity. In this context, an ultra-narrowband approach with minimal bandwidth usage provides a very high spectrum efficiency, allowing more messages to fit into an assigned frequency band without overlapping each other. Simultaneously, LPWAN systems employing asynchronous communication need a mitigation scheme to prevent packet collisions (i.e. self-interference) as the number of messages and transmission frequency increase.

4. Battery Life

Battery life has a major impact on your Total-Cost-of-Ownership and corporate sustainability targets. Though LPWAN technologies share common approaches to reduce power consumption, battery life greatly varies across systems. This is due to the significant difference in on-air radio time – or the actual transmission time of a message, which is especially important given that transmission is the most power-intensive activity. In cellular-based LPWANs, synchronous communications with heavy overheads and handshaking requirements also quickly drain the battery.

Read our previous blog on what determines battery life in LPWAN technologies.

5. Mobility Support

Moving devices, moving base stations or moving obstacles along the propagation path are all sources of Doppler shifts and deep fading that lead to packet errors. LPWAN technologies that lack resistance against Doppler effects can only support data communications from stationary or slow-moving end devices. This limits their applicability in specific IoT use cases such as fleet management. Similarly, these networks may fail to connect nodes operating in fast-changing environments such as a device installed next to a highway with vehicles travelling at more than 100 km/h velocity.

6. Public vs Private Network

When selecting an LPWAN solution, you also need to consider which suit your requirements better – a public or a private network. The biggest advantage of public LPWANs run by network operators is saving infrastructure costs. However, public LPWANs mean you’ll be dependent on the provider’s network footprint which is often far from global ubiquity. Public LPWANs leave coverage gaps in many areas and nodes operating at the network edge often suffer from unreliable connection. Private networks, on the other hand, allow for rapid deployments by end users with flexibility in network design and coverage based on their own needs. Another major drawback of public networks is data privacy concern over the centralized back-end and cloud server.

7. Proprietary vs Standard

By supporting multiple hardware vendors, industry-standard LPWAN technologies with a software-defined approach help avoid the problem of vendor lock-in while promoting long-term interoperability. Adopters, therefore, have the flexibility to adapt to future technological trends and changing corporate needs. Passing a rigorous evaluation process, solutions standardized and recognized by a Standards Development Organization also deliver guaranteed credibility and Quality-of-Service.

Read our previous blog on why you should opt for an industry-standard solution.

8. Flexible Operating Frequency

Operating frequency is another element to consider when choosing an LPWAN technology, as it can considerably influence network performance. Due to the high cost barrier of licensed bands, most LPWAN vendors leverage license-free, sub-GHz industrial, scientific and medical (ISM) frequency bands for faster technology development and deployment.

While there are many ISM bands available today, the majority of license-free LPWAN solutions are tuned for the most common frequencies only (e.g. 868 MHz in Europe, and 915 MHz in North America), making these bands particularly crowded. Therefore, an LPWAN technology which can be flexibly configured to operate in different ISM frequencies, provides an invaluable benefit of spectrum adaption to avoid already saturated bands. Switching to less congested frequencies helps reduce co-channel noise and interference, thereby improving overall system performance.

9. Data Rates

Each IoT application has a different data rate requirement which should be measured against the LPWAN solutions under consideration. It is worth noting that most IoT remote monitoring applications are rather latency tolerant and only need to transmit data periodically. As faster data rates often come with trade-offs in range and power consumption, opting for the solution that best balance these criteria will benefit your Return-on-Investment (ROI).

10. Variable Payload Size

Payload, or user data size should be driven by actual application needs rather than fixed by a certain technology. LPWAN solutions with variable payload size allow users to seamlessly integrate new use cases into their existing network infrastructure – regardless of the payload requirement.

Bottom line, the technology and technical design behind an LPWAN solution determines its performance in the criteria discussed above. Next week, we will dive deeper into the four main LPWAN technology groups and how they deliver in these parameters.

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