Smart City Network: LPWA, 5G, or Mesh?

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Should smart cities tailor the network to the use case, or choose one for an infrastructure backbone?

While low-power, wide-area (LPWA) wireless technology has been accelerating in development and deployment over the last few years, 2015 seemed like they year where it finally became the go-to solution for smart city implementations. The question now is whether it will stay in the lead, or get overtaken by competitors such as 5G and mesh.

LPWA technology has benefits and quirks alike, which may or may not make it an ideal solution for smart cities. While IoT devices running LPWA technology can run for years off a single battery, the data rates are low, which means that the kinds of services many use their LTE networks for are impossible.

For example, people want to stream video or podcasts, video chat with our friends, or view data-heavy websites, whereas machines are asked to transfer minute bundles of data, and only when necessary. Companies like Ingenu, which develops LPWA technologies, claim that most IoT devices use only 150 kB of data per month, which means they don’t need the high-bandwidth solutions that cellular consumers demand. HP, however, advises to tailor the network to the use case. For example, security cameras may require 4G connections; beacons are best suited to WiFi or Bluetooth; and smart buildings may fare best with LPWA.

LPWA and smart cities

Today, however, municipalities are developing IoT strategies that don’t just address certain problem areas, but rather the entire infrastructure backbone. For LPWA companies, this is where they’re touting the technology’s benefits — LPWA devices don’t need to be connected to line power, theoretically helping cities develop more innovative and cost-effective deployments, and reduce the potential need to perform preventative maintenance. For a use case such as a traffic sensor, low-power consumption is a must.

5G and Mesh

Companies developing other network technologies for smart cities might beg to differ about all of LPWA’s benefits. A 5G network deployed city-wide, for example, would allow for both low-data machine connection and the type of high-data activity people are doing on their phones and tablets every day. According to Business Insider, there will be 34 billion internet-connected devices online by 2020, and 24 billion of them will be IoT-driven. A major benefit of 5G is the capability to handle all of those devices with lower power consumption than previous generations. But 5G networks are still in their infancy.

Mesh networks, meanwhile, don’t need to rely on any centralized nodes or stations — something LPWA and 5G both require — which can make implementation easier. This also means that if a particular piece of hardware goes down, regardless of the reason, the rest of the network will self-heal and stay online. Meshes can also cover wide areas, just like LPWA, and take advantage of low latencies to deliver everything from sensors for traffic control to real-time surveillance video.

So which is best?

Naturally, companies developing each type of IoT solution will say that theirs is the best for any citywide IoT deployment, but the truth is that every city will need to analyze their particular needs before committing to LPWA, 5G, or mesh networks.

That being said, in 2015 both Spain and France finalized IoT networks that span almost the entirety of their countries using LPWA technology by partnering with carriers for additional infrastructure and roll-out. These networks are already powering smart water meters, smoke detectors, building alarms, and much more. Ingenu, meanwhile, claims its LPWA technology will serve over 30 major cities by the end of 2016, including Dallas, Miami, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

2016 is already half-over, but there’s still plenty of time for more LPWA developments. What will cities choose as they “go smart”? Either way, it’s an exciting time for IoT innovation.

Related:

Smart city case studies

Ingenu lays groundwork for smart city in Phoenix

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