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Cellular vs. LoRaWAN for IoT Deployments: Why The Business Case Matters More Than The Tech

When deciding if cellular connectivity or LoRaWAN is right for your IoT project, it helps to start with the use case and work backward to the tech. This guide will give you what you need to know to do just that.

One of the most common requests we get from teams building connected products is how our cellular modules compare to LoRaWAN.

The discussion is often heavily based around a technical comparison between LoRaWAN and cellular connectivity. The technical side is important, but it's the wrong place to start.

It's far more useful to start with a clear understanding of the problem you're trying to solve, and then evaluating the tech. LoRaWAN and cellular aren't direct 1-1 replacements for each other, so it's critical to understand how the tech you choose supports your business case.

In this article, we'll explain what LoRaWAN actually is, how it compares to cellular connectivity, and how you can work backward from your business need and use case to find the right connectivity tech for your product.

What is LoRaWAN?

LoRaWAN is a low-power, long range, low data rate wireless protocol. It runs on 900MHz in the Americas/ANZ and 868MHz in Europe/Asia. To access these networks, no SIM card is required—just a LoRaWAN radio and unique ID.

There are two kinds of LoRaWAN networks:

  • Private: a customer sets up their own network (e.g. a mine or farm)
  • Public: a customer uses a network that was set up by a Network Operator (Actility, Senet, et al)

So it’s like a combination of:

  • The range of a good walkie-talkie
  • The speed of dial-up internet
  • The power efficiency of an LED headlamp

LoRa vs. LoRaWAN

This is not to be confused with deployments using LoRa in point-to-point or local mesh configuration, which do not require expensive LoRaWAN base station infrastructure and system costs.

While LoRaWAN is a connectivity solution used in lieu of a cellular connection to the internet, in point-to-point/mesh deployments, simple LoRa radio modules with sensors can be paired with Particle modules to provide a fully-networked solution.

LoRa sensors can be distributed over a wide area and uplink to a Particle device paired with a LoRa module acting as a gateway node. The Particle gateway bridges the LoRa network to the internet via its cellular (or possibly WiFi) connection to the cloud.

This LoRa + Particle architecture is useful for installations where:

  • There is a lack of reliable cellular connectivity over the area but certain spot locations do work optimally
  • There are requirements for numerous simple and very low power IoT devices in relative proximity (e.g. 100s to 1000s of feet apart over acres of land)

This configuration is fairly well supported via Particle community efforts, for example: Long Range IoT Networks - Chapter 2 | Particle + LoRa Better together

How Does LoRaWAN Work?

lorawan diagram Source: Semtech, Indianapolis Bootcamp 2018

Common LoRaWAN Use Cases

LoRaWAN has been adopted for a wide variety of IoT use cases. Here are a few well known ones:

  • Smart cities. There’s an integral role for IoT in smart cities, such as monitoring connected infrastructure, utilities, parking management, air quality measurement, etc.
  • Smart grids. The foundation of the smart grid is IoT. LoRaWAN is used for connecting densely-deployed electric meters, EV chargers, battery monitors, etc. in urban and suburban areas.
  • Agriculture. Livestock, crop, and soil monitoring are common agricultural IoT use cases. LoRaWAN is used to collect high volumes of data, aggregate them via a gateway, and send it to the cloud for analysis.

Cellular vs. LoRaWAN - Economic and Tech Perspectives

When we speak to companies that are trying to compare Particle’s cellular devices to LoRaWAN technologies, they often want to discuss the technology first. But this is a mistake.

In our experience, it’s best to start with a strong understanding of the business problems to be solved, the volume and frequency of data required to generate value, and the environments in which a product will be operating. The answers to those questions and the analysis to get there should then be used to drive technology selection.

The unit economics are quite different when comparing a cellular and LoRaWAN connectivity solution.

While LoRaWAN may appear attractive due to its lower operating cost when compared to cellular deployments, the two technologies solve fundamentally different problems and are not direct replacements for each other.

Allowing cost to drive technology selection is a decision that may actually increase costs in the long run, as the solution may not solve the problems it is intended to, or may be inflexible and not be able to be applied to new business needs as they come up.

In this section, we’ll look at both the economic and technical comparisons between cellular connectivity—via the Particle platform—and a public-network LoRaWAN offering.

LoRaWAN vs. Cellular (Particle) - A Quick Comparison

LoRaWANParticle
ProfileDeployments of relatively high density/lower cost assets (individual sensors and meters)Deployments of relatively lower density, higher cost assets (vehicles, controllers, instrumentation)
BandwidthLow. Best suited for small, infrequent bursts of data. Higher bandwidth needs like OTAs can be challenging.Medium. Communication through the Particle cloud is limited to 1024 characters of JSON per Data Operation, and can operate as fast as 1 Data Operation per second per device. OTAs are separate from Data Operations, and are included free in all of Particle's packages.
Connectivity Module Cost$8-10/module, plus board, MCU, antenna, etc.$50-75 all in
Recurring Cost$200-500/mo/gateway$2-10/mo/device
Power ConsumptionVery Low. Best when multiple years of battery life is required.Medium to Low. Best for use cases where power is consistently or intermittently available.
SecurityGood. Uses 128-bit AES for network and application session keysBest. Cellular providers use robust and proven encryption and authentication standards at the network level. SIM cards are highly secure. Particle implements public-private key encryption using AES-256 keys for communication between the edge and the cloud.
CoverageHighly region and operator dependent. Operators include Senet, Actility, The Things Network, Machine Q, Helium, and SigFoxThe Particle MVNO offers connectivity from over 200+ providers worldwide. Most countries are supported by more than one operator, and the best operator is automatically selected by a given device.
LatencyVariable. Best suited for very simple devices with payloads of a few 10's of bytes and a publish interval of many minutes. Many free networks limit the total air time per device per day. Latency may also depend on network congestion and utilization.Low Federated infrastructure ensures devices have connectivity and uptime.
ReliabilityVariable. LoRaWAN is subject to jamming and interference, especially in urban environments, as it operates on public frequency bands. Uses shared infrastructure and devices can broadcast at any time, so interference can cause messages to drop unexpectedly.High. Cellular networks are highly reliable and available. Particle offers automatic retry mechanisms for data sent between edge and cloud. Particle also offers first-party support for cellular issues, and has active fleet monitoring services for enterprise clients.
ScalabilityLow. Challenges include a lack of coordination by nodes (can broadcast over each other) and shared frequency spectrum. This limits the number of nodes each gateway can support and the amount of aggregate bandwidth a particular network has available.High. Cellular devices operate on the same infrastructure as cell phones do, which is consistently maintained and upgraded by providers. Access to the infrastructure is federated and controlled so all devices are given equitable spectrum and bandwidth to operate.
CertificationDIY. Certification by the LoRa Alliance is your responsibility, but is not required by all public networks. Additionally, the spectrum is shared with non-LoRa devices that may or may not be certified. If other devices perform poorly on the spectrum, it may interfere with your devices' ability to communicate reliably.Pre-Certified. Certification is required for all devices operating on cellular networks and licensed spectrum. You can have confidence that cellular devices will be "good neighbors" to your devices on the network as a result. Particle modules come pre-certified, limiting the amount of certification work your engineers have to do.

Aligning Connectivity Tech to Asset Value and Unit Economics

As a general rule of thumb, here is how you can ensure the connectivity tech you choose makes sense for your use case and business model.

LoRaWAN

LoRaWAN is a good fit when the value of a single monitored device is low, but the value of collecting data from hundreds of devices is high, as it is in use cases like soil sensing, metering, etc. It’s also best if you’re charging a recurring fee for the data-in-aggregate, rather than per asset.

For example, LoRaWAN makes more sense for getting a weather data stream across 100 distributed stations in the Permian Basin, vs. an eBike where a single asset generates revenue.

Cellular

Cellular is a good fit for when the connected asset(s) are high value because they’re either generating revenue during operation or their failure would result in some kind of cost such as a fine, service call/truck roll, or unplanned equipment breakdown. It’s also a good fit for when each deployed product can earn subscription revenue with a substantial margin.

Connectivity Technology Selection and Its Impact on Product Functionality and Performance

In this section, we’ll break down some of the key components of each connectivity technology and explain how it will impact your product’s functionality, performance, and cost.

Spectrum

LoRaWAN relies on the public spectrum that anyone can use. That leaves devices that use LoRaWAN susceptible to interference from other devices using the public spectrum.

In areas where lots of devices are using LoRaWAN, you’ll likely struggle to keep your devices reliably connected. This interference may increase over time as well, as more and more devices are deployed on to the spectrum.

On the other hand, cellular providers purchase blocks of the radio spectrum. They own the series of frequencies on their block of the spectrum, and have a vested interest in maintaining and protecting it. Even though the cellular carriers essentially have a monopoly, the federated nature of cellular systems means that the carriers will maintain the infrastructure to ensure high performance and availability.

We liken the difference between cellular and LoRaWAN to the difference between a mixed-use walking path and a highway.

02-Wireless-Data-Highway Particle

The federated nature of cellular technology also provides an opportunity for a centralized support system. This enables faster response times in the event of an outage or other disruption.

Particle offers such a centralized support system. In addition to having access to Tier 1 support lines as a result of our large aggregate cellular fleet size, Particle also layers on additional support offerings for our customers. For example, we monitor all of our customer fleets for signs of a provider outage, and often are able to call you before you notice your devices are offline.

Ease of Use

While you can connect to public LoRaWAN networks, you may also need to set up your own via a company like Senet or Actility. Overall, LoRaWAN is generally fairly easy to set up, and many companies provide support to set up your deployment.

Cellular, while introducing some complexity to connected products, is getting easier and easier to manage. No longer do you have to deal directly with cellular carriers who may not serve your service area. You can work with MVNOs that make it so you can deploy widely without worrying about coverage.

Additionally, you can work with an IoT PaaS provider like Particle that offers a connectivity management solution—Particle Connectivity—so you don’t have to worry about negotiating with carriers, coverage, support, or even provisioning your SIMs. With Particle, devices will connect to the best available carrier right out of the box.

Vendor Risk

The technology behind LoRaWAN is all owned by a single company. When you choose a LoRaWAN solution, you purchase their IP, which may be licensed to a number of other chip vendors and platform providers. This represents business risk and is a single point of failure in your supply chain. They can raise prices at any time, leaving you with no alternatives, or they could shut down the business.

Cellular technology, while still being fairly concentrated with a few big players across the stack, still gives you options. The underlying technology is based on standards that are designed and ratified by multiple companies around the world. As a result, there are many silicon manufacturers, MVNOs, IoT solutions, etc. that reduce your dependence on a single vendor.

Particle leverages this optionality in its supply chain in order to provide the highest quality products and reduce risk in the event that a particular cellular module becomes unavailable. Learn more about how our Supply Secure program can solidify your supply chain and ensure you have devices when you need them.

Power Usage

One of the advantages of LoRaWAN is that it’s a low-power technology to the point that devices can run on coin cell batteries. Depending on your use case, this can be a major advantage, but it is worth noting that if you try to increase the power or range, battery life is significantly threatened.

Cellular devices do tend to consume more power, but offer more range and bandwidth via the networks. Additionally, Particle’s cellular devices offer several options for power management, including sleep modes. Learn more about how Particle makes low-power IoT possible.

Device Concentration

LoRaWAN is a useful solution for when you need to have a high number of devices in a concentrated area. Each of the devices can connect to a single gateway and transmit data to the cloud.

Cellular connectivity suffers when too many devices are trying to connect to the same tower at the same time. If your use case requires a high concentration of devices, you’ll have to factor that into your decision.

For example, livestock tracking for a herd of cattle means you’ll have hundreds or thousands of devices in a particular area. LoRaWAN allows you to track them by transmitting location data from the edge to a gateway, and then to the cloud without sacrificing connectivity. Cellular devices in this use case may drop connectivity due to the concentration of devices.

Choosing Between LoRaWAN and Particle

Ultimately, the choice of connectivity technologies should be informed by your use case and business model. If the benefits and features enabled by connectivity—whether through cost savings or subscription revenue—don’t allow you to make a significant enough margin on your product, the low cost of LoRaWAN may make sense.

If you’re able to generate enough economic value with a connected product to drive favorable unit economics, and you need more performance from a power and bandwidth perspective, cellular connectivity via a dedicated IoT Platform-as-a-Service is the way.

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