LoRa vs. NB-IoT vs. Sigfox: Which one is best?

LoRa vs. NB-IoT vs. Sigfox: Which one is best?

There is a lot of misinformation floating around when it comes to the various IoT protocols on offer today. There seems to be an ‘us versus them’ mentality that is perpetuated by many of the vendors and technology alliances with vested interests.

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again – we believe that in order for the Internet of Things to truly prosper, device manufacturers will need to utilise the full gamut of radio technologies at their disposal. The network requirements of low-power spectroradiometer measuring ultraviolet radiation in the Arctic will be vastly different from that of your smart home CCTV system. There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to building out a network capable of ubiquitous connectivity.

There are several radio technologies focusing on IoT applications. How do I know which is right for my project?

Any organisation considering the various competing radio technologies, first needs to evaluate the landscape as it exists today.

NB-IoT is not yet commercially available, and will likely not be until 2018 – even later in the US. For businesses looking to design and deploy their devices and solutions in the here and now, this narrows the field of competition somewhat.

Even when NB-IoT is ready for prime time, it will take months, if not years, in order to reach the same level of maturity as some of the competing LPWAN technologies on offer.

Sigfox has first mover advantage in that there is already a wide range of successful deployments and the technology has a rapidly growing ecosystem of partners.

Aren’t these protocols pretty similar? Should we just be looking for good coverage at a low cost?

The solutions out there are in fact vastly different. For a start, NB-IoT is a cellular technology, operating in the licensed spectrum, whereas Sigfox and LoRaWAN are not.

Both of these IoT protocols (cellular vs. non-cellular) have their own unique value propositions and each can fulfil use cases that the other cannot. NB-IoT works (or will work, when it is market-ready) best for applications that require minimal latency, high throughput or highly frequent communication.

Technologies like Sigfox are ideally suited to applications that need to be delivered at a very low cost, have less frequent communication requirements, and require exceptional battery performance.

What makes Sigfox so special?

If it were the case of simply selecting a technology based on cost, Sigfox would win hands down each and every time. Sigfox has the lowest cost radio modules, by a significant margin, and as the UK’s Sigfox network operator, WND UK has also been able to keep the costs of our base stations low.

If we look specifically at LoRaWAN vs. Sigfox, there are some important differentiators here too.

LoRa does not provide a network to its customers. The LoRa Alliance has developed the standard and the business model is focused on selling chips. That means if you want to use LoRa for your devices, you either have to create your own network, managing the gateways and backend yourself or use a network operator that offers LoRaWAN networks.

The former requires significantly more investment and expertise to instantiate and requires ongoing management of the LoRa gateways and the associated cloud backend, while the latter limits the geographical reach, as each LoRaWAN operator has a separate geographically isolated network; none of which share the same OSS (operations support system) or BSS (business support system) infrastructure.

The Sigfox approach is very different in that we provide and manage the network. This gives you a straightforward way to integrate the network into your product. The global OSS and BSS makes design and deployment as easy as possible throughout the world; all the issues historically related to roaming simply don’t exist with Sigfox; it’s one global network.

All you need to do is buy a compatible radio module (now sub $2) and a subscription plan (typically $1 per year per device) and you are ready to go. WND UK’s network deployment model is to deploy the network based on our customers’ needs, so if they want to use Sigfox in their technology stack, we will ensure that they have the network coverage needed to make this a reality.

Another important differentiator is ease of deployment. The WND UK base stations are about the size of a car radio with a small 60cm whip antenna. This means that we are not subject to the same legislative scrutiny as our competitors and can deploy base stations to meet the needs of our customers, without getting caught up in red tape.

So, you’re saying it’s like comparing apples and oranges?

Yes – it’s impossible to simply compare the technical specifications of these competing technologies on paper and choose a winner, because requirements in the real-world change on a case-by-case basis. There will of course be winners and losers in the race to provide IoT infrastructure, but there is also plenty of space for coexistence. In fact, a coexistence of technologies will be essential if IoT is going to be a true success.

But yes, we believe that Sigfox has a critical role to play in the future of IoT here in the UK, thanks to its unique characteristics and incredibly low price point.

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