IoT roaming is about much more than international coverage

With the Mobile World Congress starting today in Barcelona, the Internet of Things scene will certainly see a lot of announcements this week. And the Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) segment will definitely have its share of novelty, as can be seen from the press release by Actility and Sagemcom this morning, announcing the availability of roaming between LoRaWAN networks. The two LoRaWAN pioneers have worked on an early implementation of the draft standard proposed by the LoRa Alliance, which should be ready and deployed widely by operators over the coming months. The availability of this long awaited feature should accelerate partnerships between national operators. Some players have been particularly active in the last few months, such as Objenious who announced roaming agreements with Digimondo in Germany, Senet in the US, and more recently Proximus in Belgium.

The LoRaWAN standard will push dedicated functions allowing compliant network servers to supply roaming services. Two different approaches exist:

  • Passive roaming: the device doesn’t even know that it is roaming, and the visited network forwards the uplink to the home network. The device is associated with different keys for signing uplinks and downlinks, and only the home network server is able to read downlinks.
  • Mobile hand-over roaming: the device exchanges with the visited network, and is given a new address and radio parameters by this network. Data is still routed through the home network. The device however has to broadcast a ‘rejoin request’ periodically to initiate the roaming process, which may require a specific setting and could have impacts on battery usage.

These approaches allow the IoT connectivity to be provided to the device across multiple public networks –within a given country or internationally–, or from a private network to a public one. A potential limitation (that applies to all international LPWA networks) resides in the difference in regulatory frameworks: different countries may have different frequency bands or power output limitations. As an example the 868 MHz ISM band is used in Europe, while the 915 MHz one is used in the US.

LoRaWAN roaming will serve various purposes. The most obvious one is perhaps to enable international use cases thanks to roaming across borders: baggage monitoring, parcel/shipment tracking, etc. This will allow LoRa operators to compete with Sigfox’ offer (already available in 30+ countries), and with the upcoming NB-IoT ones. But roaming will also let operators enhance their coverage within the same country by network sharing, through extensions or densification. In areas with overlapping network, the device’s communication may be received by more gateways –potentially closer ones– allowing for more reliable and energy efficient communications. It may however require operators to sign deals with competitors, which will certainly prove difficult in markets where the coverage is a marketing argument.

Roaming will also enable new network building strategies, as any network owner will be able to share its coverage with other operators. For example, a local operator with a deployed network will now have a significant value to offer to a new-entrant in the IoT scene, or to a national operator willing to expand its coverage quickly. Private network owners may also find a new source of revenue for their networks, by allowing roaming on their infrastructure. It is however still unclear how significant roaming revenues will be. Other types of networks may even arise, with organisations (municipalities? utilities?) banding together to create region-wide networks.

At the very least, roaming brings new incentives for fixed broadband operators to deploy LPWA networks, and could translate in new deployment models securing new sources of revenues. If you want to know more about deploying IoT networks, check our report ‘Entering the IoT market as a broadband operator’.