Mobile cellular communications are a fascinating world. Although there’s impressive advances in technology in the research world – both academic and industrial research -, the technological progress and advance of such networks is driven by the standards community (i.e. 3GPP).

This is an approach that has worked since the inception of GSM and has delivered the impressive technology current smartphones use to connect to the Internet, stream the latest “cute dog doing something cute” video and watch the goals by Celta against Madrid in yesterday’s game (hooray for Celta!). In parallel, this model provides enough time for both equipment manufacturers and network operators to get a good return on the investment of billions of dollars of network equipment.

Nowadays, though, we are experiencing two technology trends that are challenging the status quo in wireless and mobile technology. For the first time ever, standards are late to cope for the demand – and obscene amounts of potential revenue and services – in two key technological trends:

  • IoT: There is a massive demand of wireless connectivity for embedded M2M devices. For many applications, such as smart city, agriculture, smart grid, etc, some of the requirements are to have very cheap devices (the “target” used in the industry is $1 per chip) with very low battery consumption (again, the “target” from the industry is 10 years, thoguh I think that is a bit optimistic). The demand is here, but the standards have not delivered. And, in this huge gap one can find two exciting trends: the money-making/raising machine of Sigfox and the LoRa/LoRaWAN community. Two new technologies fueling new services, new applications and exciting new ventures. Meanwhile, the 3GPP community is playing catch up with LTE Cat-M and NB-IoT. (This document provides a bit of an overview. – LoRa is much slower, but for the aforementioned applications one does not need much speed, and latency is not a major deal breaker either)
  • Connected cars, self-driving cars, etc: Similar scenario. Although the self-driving car technology is still just in its inception, there is already several use cases that require connectivity between vehicles and from vehicles to the “road”. 5G mobile networks aim at sub-10ms latency and large capacity for connectivity to 1000x more devices, yet at this point no one really knows what 5G will be (other than the really exciting transition to mmWave and application of massive arrays and beamforming). In parallel, an alternative technology – Dedicated Short Range Communications – seems to be gaining momentum.

In both cases, once the mobile industry and the standards catch up and finally deploy 5G, LTE Cat-M/NB-IoT, all these alternative technologies might simply fade away. But, as of now, the folks at SigFox, the startups deploying smart-city applications running on LoRa, etc are making a lot of money and the status quo is not getting – yet – any piece of the cake.

Exciting times!

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