LTE-M technology enters the “real world”

On November 8, 2018, Orange announced the opening up of the LTE-M network in France and immediately launched a challenge, in partnership with SNCF, with the objective of educating, stimulating, and uniting the ecosystem around this key technology for the IoT.

“LTE-M technology provides an alternative in decision-making, and an additional asset designed to cover new use cases.”

The laboratory and experimentation phase is now over for LTE-M technology and it is ready to put its theoretical potential into practice. To encourage its appropriation by players within the ecosystem, on November 8, Orange launched a challenge, at the forefront of industrial IoT within France, in partnership with SNCF that is designed to explore the capacities of the technology through real use cases and combat challenges currently faced by the rail company. Businesses, start-ups, developers, solutions providers, product manufacturers, etc.: everyone is involved!

On this occasion, Marine Mizrahi, Head of IoT Fab at SNCF, and Mathieu Belouar, Innovations & Connectivity Manager at SNCF, spoke about the level of maturity achieved by the rail group in its IoT development projects and what they expect from the LTE-M technology. Thierry Gaillet, Director, Orange Developer marketing, and Ronan Le Bras, Head of Technical Strategy — Wireless Networks for IoT at Orange, also shared their point of view on the challenge.

At a press conference in May 2017, the president of  SNCF, Guillaume Pepy, stated that the IoT was becoming “a key driver of performance and efficiency” for the Group. How was this driver developed and implemented internally?

Marine Mizrahi/Mathieu Belouar: The company, which has a history in the M2M field with the connection of its machines, has been investing in and working on the IoT since 2015, and established its IoT Fab in early 2016. Its objectives are as follows: support the business lines in the fulfillment of their IoT projects by providing dedicated resources and expertise, and create the tools required for the purposes of industrialization. As such, a unified Group IoT platform was designed, together with specific framework contracts and business guidelines. We therefore play a role in supporting these initiatives, while bearing in mind the challenges associated with costs (spreading of costs), time (acceleration of projects, consistency of the TTM (Time to Market) with market trends) and the impact on our business lines. In the end, we want to ensure that we are delivering solutions that are of value to them.

In essence, for us the IoT represents an additional source of information that works alongside what we already have in place. With this in mind, across the 30,000 km of lines, thousands of rolling stock and hundreds of thousands of objects that the Group manages and monitors, we decided to “ioT-ize” only where and when we need information. When this is the case, the IoT allows us to support our operations and gain the best possible knowledge of the state and use of our installations and facilities.

To which use cases are IoT solutions applied within SNCF?

MM/MB: They are spread between three fields of application in equal proportions: the rail network, rolling stock, and stations and tertiary buildings. For the LTE-M challenge organized by Orange, the use cases adopted relate to stations, improving quality for staff and passengers, trackside facilities, better securing infrastructures, and technical centers, to optimize maintenance.

The IoT is used in a reasonable and reasoned way, and offers us greater agility by enabling us, for example, to access places where we have not previously had sufficient coverage in terms of energy and connectivity. It is a real game-changer, and will help to modernize our processes through new sensors and innovation in wireless technologies, whether relating to energy or connectivity.

What role does LTE-M technology play in SNCF’s IoT innovation approach?

MM/MB: A sense of continuity in the exploration of technologies, and an alternative in decision-making. In the end, it is always a matter of choice and at SNCF, we are striving to preserve this in all circumstances. The technology that we implement is always conditional on the anticipated use and ROI. It is also an additional asset that will make a significant contribution in addressing new use cases and business.

In concrete terms, this technology stands out thanks to its practical deployment features and its “ubiquitous model”; wherever there is 4G reception, we will have access to the LTE-M network – including in tunnels – and this will provide solutions in many potential use cases. It also represents a leap forward in terms of speeds, and LTE-M technology will overcome certain constraints and thereby allow us to push the boundaries of the IoT. For applications concerning the security of specific installations, in particular, it will be possible to gather and process video streams.

Thierry Gaillet/Ronan Le Bras: The technology is being rolled out on the LTE networks and supports existing deployments, by offering, since its launch, a national coverage rate of 98% of the French population. Its added value also lies in the capacity of the LTE-M network to support two-way communication in real time, with performance in the range of 100 to 200 milliseconds for a round trip. Other operating benefits lie in the LTE-M network’s ability to support use cases covering mobile or roaming.

What are you looking for from the challenge?

MM/MB: We want to see LTE-M technology being explored and used to its maximum potential, to see if it can keep its promises with regard to technical, energy, and performance efficiencies. And within SNCF business lines, it is hoped that it can respond to new and existing use cases, to then industrialize and integrate the solutions developed for our IoT programs.

There is also a strong focus on the ecosystem: the challenge represents a fantastic opportunity to add value to already mature businesses using the technology and to meet new potential partners. Through this initiative, we are positioning ourselves as pioneers and will all go through a phase of education and shared learning together.

Lastly, it provides an opportunity to maintain and consolidate a dynamic of internal mobilization, with the teams from the Auvergne/Rhône-Alpes region at the forefront, which defined and managed the use cases studied by the participants.

TG/RLB: The technology has only just been launched and, through this challenge, it is being faced with real situations. It is an approach that we successfully implemented for the LoRaWAN networks, notably with Groupama and Air Liquide, and now we are doing the same for the LTE-M technology with SNCF. It will be a great opportunity to test concrete solutions, designed by and with start-ups, developers, service providers, etc. Almost 50 solutions were submitted initially, with a wide variety of proposals, from experts in fields such as embedded software, hardware, platforms, data management, and AI.

It is a chance for Orange to test and improve our products, our platforms, and ultimately to refine or focus on our technical roadmaps. And that can equally encourage applicants to think about their own product plans.

The priority and key issue is to validate the relevance of using LTE-M technology for certain use cases, its capacity to work alongside LoRa networks and the transition between a laboratory environment to the “real world” on the ground.

Because the objective of a challenge is precisely to challenge ourselves, we will closely monitor the reaction of participants when faced with these real cases and expect to see their ability to respond, their creativity and their degree of maturity.

We are delighted to have launched and organized this event in partnership with SNCF, a renowned European player in the field of the IoT. It is quite a unique challenge and the first of its kind given the type and variety of projects. We hope that it will serve to stimulate the expertise and vision of the applicants, and the ecosystem as a whole.

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