Unlicensed spectrum might play a key role supporting Internet of Things networks especially focused on industrial, agricultural, utility and environmental sensor applications.

Such applications typically require low power platforms of low cost, but able to transmit messages at reasonable distances.

So it is that the LoRa Alliance, including firms such as IBM, Cisco and Microchip Technology, as well as telecom operators Bouygues Telecom, KPN, SingTel, Proximus, Swisscom, and FastNet (Telkom South Africa), supports the use of LoRa spread-spectrum radio protocol for use in wide area networks and the Internet of Things.

LoRa (Long Range) is a low data rate, long-distance communication protocol used by Semtech Corp. to provide industrial, home and building automation networks. LoRa supports devices with a range of up to 50 kilometers. The long range means that large areas can be covered by relatively few base stations.

Just as significantly, LoRa devices are expected to operate for as long as 10 years without a battery swap.

That is part of the reason supporters believe LoRa has value for many IoT and M2M applications.

Separately, SigFox uses an ultra-narrow-band platform for machine-to-machine communications and IoT, also operating in unlicensed spectrum.

The base stations are said to operate over ranges of three to 10 kilometers in urban areas and up to 30 to 50 kilometers in rural areas.

SigFox claims to have a network providing 80 percent coverage of France and has signed up operators in the Netherlands, Spain, UK and Russia, and is working on satellite connections as well.

The point is that, if one assumes the next big leap in mobile and untethered communications will be to support machines, not people, then unlicensed spectrum is likely to play a bigger role.