Low-power wide-area network standards, advantages, and use cases

As published by Embedded Computing Design, March 10, 2017

By Dave Kjendal, CTO and EVP of Engineering, Senet

The  () may represent more innovation and change than any other technological development in our lifetime. By instrumenting the world with low-cost sensors, consumers, businesses, cities and entire countries have the opportunity to change the way value is created by providing ground truth data to transform outcomes, markets, and economies.

With technology advancements and market opportunities of such significance, one of the primary challenges introduced by the IoT is how to best collect, transport, filter, and consume the vast amount of raw data that will be generated and to apply it to the differing needs of commercial, , and civic IoT programs. Faced with this critical, foundational task, decision makers should start by asking themselves one fundamental question: Is it worth paying to collect and transmit data that is more detailed than I need?

If the answer is “no” then you should consider using a low-power, wide-area network () for your IoT initiatives.

Connecting the Internet of Things

The emergence of LPWANs has fundamentally changed the IoT landscape. LPWANs are designed for sensors and applications that need to send and receive small amounts of data over long distances a few times per hour, or maybe only once a day. By collecting and transmitting only the data that is needed to optimize specific applications or operations, LPWANs offer value that cannot be achieved with other network technologies, including:

  • Substantially lower cost in both capital and operational expense
  • The ability to deploy sensor solutions with an extended lifespan of more than 10 years
  •  coverage with a small number of gateways
  • Accelerated time-to-market for end solution deployments

The market opportunity for -based solutions is rapidly emerging and is quite significant. Because of the unique characteristics of LPWA technologies, of the 50 billion devices estimated to be connected to the IoT by the end of 2021, it is expected that more than 60 percent of these devices will be connected with LPWANs[1].

LPWA communications: Standards, differentiation, and deployment models

The gap left by high-cost, high-function cellular and low-cost, localized  and Bluetooth connectivity will be dominated by public LPWANs, and not surprisingly,  has emerged as a leading LPWA communications technology for IoT by virtue of its open ecosystem and technical superiority.

 networks are built using open standards, which provides a broad vendor community to support applications – an essential aspect of driving the adoption of any successful network technology. This open ecosystem is instrumental in overcoming markets’ natural resistance to new technologies, while technical advantages allow LoRaWAN to address more use cases than legacy networks and competing LPWA solutions (Figure 1).

[Figure 1 | LoRaWAN network architectures enable secure, reliable low-bandwidth data communications over wide areas for  (IoT) deployments.]

Cellular networks, for example, are built for the needs of smartphone users, delivering faster connections to support more data. While the idea of piggybacking off of an existing cellular infrastructure may seem appealing, the price to keep up with the evolution of cellular technologies doesn’t make sense for most industrial and commercial IoT applications.  technologies such as Wi-Fi, , and Bluetooth are also available for IoT applications, but these legacy technologies are characterized by short-range, low-power communication capabilities, thus restricting their usage to limited coverage areas. As compared to proprietary LPWA networks, networks supporting the LoRaWAN protocol foster unparalleled business continuity and deliver extreme flexibility. Selecting LoRaWAN not only provides application portability and network provider choice, but its operation can be conducted on a public network, in a semi-private style or completely private depending on the market and application requirements.

In addition to the benefits of LoRaWAN being an open standard, there are critical security, reliability, and scalability benefits provided by the architecture. The LoRaWAN protocol was designed with end-to-end security as a fundamental element of the architecture. Communications on the network between end nodes and the application server are secured with AES-128 encryption. This end node ‘VPN-like’ service ensures data integrity and security for sensitive application data.

Network reliability is supported by the ability to deploy redundant gateways in a very cost-effective manner, minimizing communication disruption in the event of a localized outage. In addition, end nodes are capable of sending readings more often than required and can resend messages to increase reception outcomes. Messages can also be sent requiring acknowledgements, assuring the desired outcome is achieved.

Scalability is key to any commercial and Industrial IoT (IIoT) solution deployment. The coverage provided via LoRaWAN gateways can easily be right sized for the desired application. Commercially available Macro Cell Gateways provide 10-20 miles of wireless coverage and connectivity for tens of thousands of devices per gateway, while Micro Cell Gateways provide 1-2 miles of coverage and hundreds of devices per gateway. Through flexible and scalable deployment options, LoRaWANs deliver the coverage and scalability necessary for a diverse set of monitoring and control applications across agriculture, supply chain, asset tracking, smart city, and other demanding markets and use cases. Smaller Pico Cell Gateways are designed to support residential or commercial applications and provide coverage for tens of devices per gateway. This option is ideal for a range of intelligent building applications and even consumer solutions such as  and assisted living.

Applications and use cases

LPWANs are playing an important role in connecting a range of devices that require features such as low power consumption, low cost, and long battery life. As noted above, these networks are ideal for a diverse range of industries, such as agriculture, utilities, oil & gas, and smart buildings/smart cities, and cover a range of applications and deployment scenarios that cellular and short-range wireless network technologies are not suited for.

Another interesting aspect of LPWAN solutions is the ability to cost-effectively support the efficient functioning of components and systems that lead to opportunities that will massively impact resource conservation, waste reduction, safety, and security. Waste management, for example, is growing in importance for ecological sustainability in many countries. LPWAN solutions can help with streamlining the collection process (i.e., collect bins only when full), route optimization, and resource planning. LPWAN smart metering and resource management solutions represent a paradigm shift in understanding  and conservation at all the levels of upstream and downstream operations. Also, supporting the efficient functioning of all components and systems of a building, such as lighting, safety and security, emergency systems, HVAC, and other systems, can enhance public safety and deliver energy savings with marginal human involvement and cost.

The strategy of partnerships, alliances, and collaboration is the approach adopted by industry leaders to achieve growth in the LPWAN market. In March 2015 the LoRa Alliance was incorporated as a non-profit to maintain and advance the LoRaWAN specification. The LoRa-Alliance has grown since that time from 20 founding members to more than 400 today. The LoRaWAN specification provides an open, secure protocol definition for the operation of end devices and the networks that support them. The openness of both the specification and the LoRa Alliance has nurtured an ever-growing ecosystem of technology and solution providers that is bringing a building momentum to IoT deployments around the globe.