How long until public sector IoT networks fail?

Hull City Council has joined many of its peers and is launching a Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN). They’re becoming very much in vogue for UK councils with smart city ambitions. These Internet of Things (IoT) networks are for their own projects and, hopefully, to sell access to others. The problem is when everyone’s selling whose going to buy? This is far from a UK only phenomena: The City of Lake Macquarie in Australia is working with a local partner to build a commercial network to support smart parking, lighting, and other smart city applications along with the needs of local businesses.

This LPWAN technology is ideal for a wide range of IoT use cases, particularly within the smart city space which typically requires massive number of smart things sending small packets of data. Connectivity need support very low power usage allowing owners to leave low cost devices in the wild with very little maintenance requirements.

But, the true goal is sell access these networks both as a potential revenue stream and to foster local businesses with IoT ambitions. York’s own network is explicitly for this albeit admirable purpose. But, the UK public sector doesn’t always have the best reputation when it becomes to operating commercially.

This is far from a lack of business nous, rather as with shared services centres, good ideas are replicated and we ended up with a market wherein so many public agencies where offering corporate services that no one was left to buy them.

LPWAN networks used to improve public services, for example using IoT data to inform council workers when a street light is out or when a bin needs emptying, is a fantastic way to reduce local taxes and offer better services to citizens. If this is the goal for these networks, they will succeed. If the goal is to commercialize that’s a more challenging proposition and one wherein they are not just competing with other public agencies.

Operators around the world are starting to launch cellular LPWAN solutions, namely NB-IoT and LTE-M. Agencies will also be competing with non-cellular networks such as Digital Catapults own LoRaWAN network or Sigfox. The advantages of these networks is that they are national allowing devices to roam around the UK.

Whilst smart city applications more often than not static assets, such as street furniture, business’ own IoT use cases will products and goods on the move for example monitoring the condition of a smart ‘thing’ sold to a customer.

However, whilst this is being demanded by businesses, UK telcos have been surprisingly slow (versus international peers) in unveiling and timetabling the launch of these types of networks. So if the public sector can collaborate and permit roaming this provides a much needed service for UK plc.

There is positive and leaders in this space, with Essex and Herts investigating how they can share their own Telensa networks to investigate roaming and facilitating data sharing to improve civic services for residents in both counties.

UK public sector should continue to invest in these networks as long delivering operational efficiencies is the primary aim. There is a commercial opportunity, given the delays in NB-IoT or similar, by UK telecommunications giants.

But to succeed, public agencies with LPWAN need to quickly establish Public Sector Network (PSN)-like agreements to foster collaboration and provide wide ranging low power IoT connectivity for UK plc they can’t currently access from mobile providers.

Josh Hewer Lead Analyst – IoT, GlobalData @josh_hewer

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