How LPWAN and 5G Can Work Together to Create a Powerful IoT Architecture

While often seen as two competitive connectivity options, LPWAN and cellular, specifically the emerging 5G technology can, in fact, interoperate in a single IoT architecture to improve solution versatility and applicability.

5G rollouts are a hot topic this year. Global telecoms are in a race to announce their launch plans, vying for the first move advantage. After almost a decade of development, 5G is finally getting closer to reality. This new generation of cellular connectivity has sparked lots of excitement, mostly due to its promise of gigabit data speed. Alongside its expected dominance in the consumer space, 5G is also advocated as a future catalyst for Industrial IoT (IIoT) innovations.

The reality is, even with distinct advantages in terms of reliability, security and low latency, 5G, similar to previous cellular generations, cannot cater to all IIoT use cases. This is because of the inherently extensive application range and heterogeneous network requirements in the IoT space.

We often compare cellular against Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWAN) as disparate communications options. However, in many scenarios, a combination of LPWAN and cellular can create enhanced value and functionality in both the smart city and industrial landscape. So, how can these two solutions complement each other and what does the (I)IoT architecture look like?

1. Cellular Serves as The Backhaul Connection for Private LPWA Networks

Promising ultra-reliable, low-latency communication, 5G is predicted to support time-sensitive process control and augmented reality in future digital factories. However, IIoT is never just about factory automation. In reality, a much larger number of IIoT applications require deployments of power-independent, wireless sensors that live on a single battery for many years. Often times, IIoT networks for remote monitoring, worker safety or energy and facility management, entail low-bandwidth connections of numerous granular data points to report the status of individual assets and workers or critical environmental parameters on micro-zone levels.

For these networks, cellular solutions, whether 3G, LTE or the new 5G, are simply too power-hungry. Additionally, expensive device data plans blow up network costs and present a major adoption barrier. Existing gaps in cellular coverage are another concern for connecting assets at remote, inaccessible locations.

In this context, LPWAN – deployed as a private, local network – provides power-saving, scalable “last-mile” connectivity for factory-wide, battery-powered sensor networks. LPWAN can also reach remote, underground locations where cellular infrastructure is absent. Thanks to significantly lower device and subscription costs, these solutions offer a more affordable option for data collection from massive endpoints.

On the other hand, due to the simplified, small-footprint design, LPWA networks are not IP-based. As such, they lack the ability to communicate data to cloud platforms on their own. That’s where cellular comes in as a versatile backhaul connection. High-bandwidth cellular networks can replace LPWAN in the next step of the IoT data chain to transfer large bulks of aggregated data from a central LPWAN base station to the cloud. With this architecture, companies can optimize the cost structure of their IoT networks by aligning data costs with actual data usage at each network component.

LPWAN & 5G

2. LPWAN and 5G/Cellular Co-exist in A Public Network Infrastructure

For smart city applications in urban areas where cellular infrastructure is literally omnipresent, the co-existence of LPWAN and cellular in the same public network pays off in multiple ways. From local authorities and urban developers’ perspectives, this removes the heavy lifting of network deployment and management, thanks to a city-wide unified communications infrastructure. The use of public IoT networks also takes the infrastructure (i.e. base stations, antennas) component off from the cost equation.

Leveraging the best of both worlds, LPWAN and cellular can potentially serve a vast spectrum of smart city innovations. For applications requiring only periodical or event-based transmission of small messages, LPWAN is ideal, providing excellent cost and power performance. Examples include smart metering, waste management, intelligent parking, smart lighting, or pollution and disaster management.

On the other hand, for applications demanding high-throughput data streaming, cellular connectivity, especially the upcoming 5G, will be instrumental. Typical examples are surveillance cameras, autonomous drones for security and transportation purposes, connected vehicles and mission-critical voice communications.

Summing up, while it makes sense to have a single communications solution in certain cases, a combination of multiple options can deliver elevated flexibility and functionality to serve a wider range of IoT/ IIoT applications. At the end of the day, no connectivity solution is use-case agnostic and new network requirements may emerge as companies move forward in their IoT strategy. For network operators, marrying LPWAN with cellular connectivity in their offerings will consolidate their value delivery by effectively addressing a broader breadth of end customers’ challenges.

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