How Low-Power Wide-Area Networks Can Bring the IoT to the Next Level
As published by Wireless Week, February 15, 2017
By Dave Kjendal, CTO and Vice President of Engineering, Senet
The Internet of Things (IoT) is one of the most hyped markets today, and for good reason – it represents a massive opportunity for many traditional markets to realize dramatic improvements by using the ground-truth provided by a multitude of small connected devices interacting with their local environments.
Just as the 1980s saw the dawn of the personal computer and the 1990s the Internet, a similar paradigm shift is happening today with the Internet of Things — a global market that has a potential economic impact of $11 trillion per year on businesses worldwide by 20251. During this period, it is estimated that global IP traffic will triple, fueled by 10 billion new internet connected devices and machine-to-machine connections coming online to support a new generation of IoT applications. This may be as simple as reporting a sensor reading or as critical as controlling a fire suppression system. With opportunities this diverse, new and different technologies will need to be brought to bear to address a multitude of application requirements. In fact, the Internet of Things will utilize several types of connectivity and network technologies depending on differing application requirements such as data speed, range, level of automation, and ease of use.
The vision of the Internet of Things “connecting everything, everywhere” can be daunting when you think about the practical application of technology needed to accomplish this, but organizations are quickly realizing the promise and potential of IoT doesn’t require waiting a decade more for any single technology to mature. The infrastructure and ecosystem needed to implement global, enterprise-grade IoT connectivity and productivity enhancing applications is here today.
Connecting the Internet of Things
There are many wireless technologies that address the requirements of Internet of Things applications. Cellular, WiFi, and Bluetooth Low Energy (BTLE) are widely adopted technologies and the right choice for some. For several years however, these options have limited IoT solution development because of the high-cost of cellular and the limits of localized WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity. These technologies have successfully met the goals of many proprietary, single use applications, but do not adequately address the goals of next-generation large scale commercially deployable IoT solutions which are demanding long range, long sensor battery life, bi-directional communication capability, mobility, geo-location, enterprise-grade security, and low cost.
Cellular solutions ranging from 2G to LTE communications, for example, provide relatively high performance connectivity at the expense of high power requirements. Devices are necessarily more complex, but can provide large amounts of data for analysis (e.g. audio and video streams). In addition, cellular devices are typically globally provisioned through a SIM or eSIM. This precludes the requirement for local provisioning that makes Local-Area solutions difficult to implement at scale outside of consumer applications. However, the power draw and device complexity limit the addressable market for cellular applications.
Local-Area solutions (often WiFi or Bluetooth) are inexpensive and can be very power efficient, but suffer from short range and require local provisioning (WiFi passwords or Bluetooth pairing). In industrial settings or when the consumer may be unaware of the connectivity requirements, Local-Area technologies can be extremely constraining.
This gap introduced between cellular and Local-Area networks has opened the door to a new technology which addresses the market demand for Low-Power, Wide-Area (LPWA) connectivity solutions. In essence, LPWA networks complement existing cellular and short range solutions by enabling lower costs and better power consumption characteristics. Until recently however, this was a market segment un-addressed by prevalent technologies.
Low Power Wide Area Networks
Compared to other network technologies LPWA device goals include low or no touch installation, long-lifetime and battery powered, low cost hardware, secure communications, interoperability, and deployment simplicity. The networks deployed to provide this connectivity must be similarly complementary: leveraging a low-cost infrastructure; centralized, scalable architectures; seamless intra- and inter-domain roaming; guaranteed interoperability and “good-enough” connectivity based on unlicensed spectrum.
Low-cost, long-lasting battery-powered sensors purposefully designed for applications that require limited data communications throughput allow businesses to deploy solutions at a massive scale and a low total cost of ownership. A look at connectivity market data from Gartner and other firms shows analysts today generally agree that LPWA connectivity represents the majority of IoT use cases — some estimating over 55 percent of the entire IoT market.
Recently, several organizations have advanced open standards to enable mass adoption of LPWA connectivity. Two appear to be well-positioned to survive and thrive: LoRa-Alliance’s LoRaWAN and 3GPP’s NB-IoT. Of the LPWA communication technologies, LoRaWAN has emerged as the leading technology by virtue of its open ecosystem — 400+ LoRa Alliance members and growing — and technical superiority. LoRaWAN provides advantages over competing proprietary technologies which operate in a closed ecosystem and lack critical capabilities required by IoT solutions including mobility and bi-directional communications. Further, the LoRaWAN ecosystem has seen 50 percent year-over-year reductions in the prices of gateways and radio modules. This advancement, coupled with its global availability, represents a massive opportunity for organizations across traditional and new markets to instrument their businesses and use the ground-truth provided by connected devices to drive dramatic economic and environmental improvements.
Applications and Use Cases
Ultimately a network is valued by the size of the markets it can cover and the proof points provided by the customers using it, and there is no question that LPWANs are transforming the way things are monitored and measured. This combination of new network and sensor technologies is driving significant growth in the commercial availability of applications — enabling more ‘things’ to participate in the IoT evolution.
The success of Low-Power, Wide-Area networks is being driven by applications in industries where businesses desire to streamline operations, deliver greater time and cost savings to a broad spectrum of tasks, provide public value, and have a positive impact on the environment.
A few example applications include:
- Remotely measuring and monitoring water, wastewater, and groundwater for increased productivity, enhanced regulatory compliance, and improved customer service and response
- Gathering data about agricultural conditions including weather, soil moisture, chemical composition, and other environmental conditions to improve crop yield and reduce production costs
- A range of smart building, campus, and city applications designed to increase building efficiency and deliver smart, connected solutions to the public
- Asset tracking, supply chain, and delivery solutions offering increased operational efficiencies and productivity enhancements
LPWANs also bring a level of simplicity and transformation to the Internet of Things not delivered by other technologies. A municipality can implement smart city solutions without needing to create a new IT department to run the network. A farmer can expand per-acre coverage and monitor more assets due to the simplicity of deployment and cost of ownership reductions. And a fuel delivery company can evolve its tank monitoring application to a comprehensive fuel delivery automation solution by gaining access to more detailed data from more assets over wider areas at a lower cost.
As recently as early 2013, the term ‘Low-Power, Wide-Area Network’ did not exist, but now the adoption and use of LPWA technologies is becoming a competitive necessity for many industries and is a key component of today’s IoT technology wave. For a company not to consider LPWAN solutions in today’s IoT market would be like companies in the 1980’s deciding not to use computers or businesses in the 1990s determining there was no reason to believe the Internet was going to enhance productivity.
1. McKinsey Global Institute analysis
Dave Kjendal is CTO and Vice President of Engineering at Senet, a North American provider of public low-power wide-area networks for long-range (LoRa) Internet of Things applications.