Comcast’s MNO challenge moves into the IoT

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Comcast, France’s Iliad and other fixed-line operators have already demonstrated how they can undermine the mobile carriers’ business case by making heavy use of WiFi to add wireless elements to their budding quad play services, reducing their usage and fees for MVNO agreements and allowing them to offer disruptive WiFi-first pricing.

Now Comcast may be set to pull off the same trick using another unlicensed spectrum technology, this time LoRaWAN, one of the leading non-cellular networks for low power wide area (LPWA) connections, to support emerging smart city and other Internet of Things (IoT) use cases.

Mobile operators are split between those which believe cellular options – the new NB-IoT and also Enhanced GSM – will meet all the needs of the wide area IoT; and those, like SK Telecom and Bouygues of France, which are likely to use a combination of licensed and unlicensed systems according to the application and cost pressures.

But the growing ecosystem and deployments base of the leading unlicensed challengers, such as LoRaWAN and Sigfox, certainly make them viable alternatives to cellular, for companies which do not have their own spectrum. Comcast is preparing two smart city trials supporting business-to-business applications, both due to start this month. One is in San Francisco and the other in Philadelphia, and in both cases it is working with the main supplier of LoRa equipment, Semtech. If these first trials go well, the two firms say they will extend the network to as many as 28 further US cities in the next 18-30 months.

Comcast is the first cableco to embark on a major wireless IoT roll-out but it is logical that, regardless of the technology chosen, MNOs will not have this whole market to themselves any more than they monopolized public WiFi.

There will be a similar mix of applications which require licensed spectrum connections, for security or QoS reasons (especially outdoors), and which can be slightly forgiving on the cost and power consumption fronts. Others will live happily in unlicensed bands, because they can take a more best effort approach, or they are in indoor locations where the networks can be effectively managed and secured.

Integration between the various networks, for interoperability and so that IoT traffic can be onloaded and offloaded like broadband traffic, will be essential, but that means cooperation on interfaces and APIs, not necessarily on the connectivity itself.

That integrated picture will take a great deal of time and compromise to achieve but efforts by ETSI and others will help the cause. In the meantime, all kinds of service providers – including private network operators, cities and vertical specialists – will be vying to secure the pole position in the complex IoT value chain.

Comcast’s IoT service, called machineQ, will initially focus on familiar smart city applications such as smart metering, environmental monitoring and asset tracking. The trials will also enable partners to gather, transmit and analyze data from the connected devices. In future, Comcast indicated it could expand the system to support residential services in the smart home.

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Caroline has been analyzing and reporting in the hi-tech industries since 1986 and has a huge wealth of experience of technology trends and how they impact on business models. She started her career as a journalist, specializing in enterprise and carrier networks and in silicon technologies. She spent much of her journalistic career at VNU Business Publishing, then Europe’s largest producer of technology publications and information services . She was publishing director for the launch of VNU’s pan-European online content services, and then European editorial director. She then made the move from publishing into technology market analysis and consulting, and in 2002 co-founded Rethink Technology Research with Peter White. Rethink specializes in trends and business models for wireless, converged and quad play operators round the world and the technologies that support them. Caroline’s role is to head up the wireless side of the business, leading the creation of research, newsletters and consulting services focused on mobile platforms and operator models. In this role, she has become a highly recognized authority on 4G systems such as LTE and WiMAX, and a prolific speaker at industry events. Consulting and research clients come from major mobile operators, the wireless supply chain and financial institutions.

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