The Importance of Being Earnest in the IIoT

As published in IoT Evolution, April 06, 2017

Last week, at the Enterprise IoT Summit in Austin, Texas, we caught up with John Nye and enjoyed his discussion of Senet’s vision for connected cities, towns, campuses, and other public spaces. The relatively new VP of Business Development for Senet, Nye has decades of experience working in global telecom and technology, and joined the company in large part based on its fast-growing Low-Power Wide-Area Network (LPWAN) solution, which continues to grow as the largest deployment of LPWAN Points-of-Presences (PoPs) in North America.

At the end of last week, Verizon made a significant announcement, launching the first U.S. nationwide commercial LTE Category M1 (Cat M1) network, which spans 2.4 million square miles. Verizon claimed in its announcement that this is the first, and only, Cat M1 network providing scale, coverage and security for customers seeking wireless access solutions for IoT.

It’s a pretty big deal, no doubt, triggering lots of discussion in the LoRaWAN world, and triggering this post as IoT Evolution World decided to get out in front of the debate by tapping into the experts at Senet even as they continue to announce more and more PoPs and large IIoT partnerships with companies like Trimble Water.

Before we get into Nye’s take on the growing debate on the best connectivity options for large-scale IoT, some experts are sharing tests and early deployments proving that Cat M1 (or eMTC as it was once called) has some coverage and power consumption advantages over Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT), a third leg of the stool.

According to the GSMA, NB-IoT “is a standards-based Low-Power Wide-Area technology developed to enable a wide range of new IoT devices and services. NB-IoT significantly improves the power consumption of user devices, system capacity and spectrum efficiency, especially in deep coverage. Battery life of more than 10 years can be supported for a wide range of use cases.”

We asked Nye where he sees LoRaWAN solutions performing compared to this new, national Cat M1 network from Verizon, and other NB-IoT services, to find out how complementary vs. competitive they are now and will be in the future.

“We don’t trivialize Verizon’s or other cellular carriers’ efforts in the IoT space, including their Cat M1 investments,” Nye said, “but there are still significant barriers for market adoption given the path they seem to be going down. Take, for example, what vertical industry solution providers need; water management is a huge use case today, with impressive cost savings and environmental compliance benefits derived from in-ground sensor deployments.”

Nye explained that industrial deployments in water monitoring are not just about the sensors, per se, but how those sensors are literally “embedded” under concrete and steel form factors.

“Battery life of five to ten years is no small matter,” Nye said. “Changing those batteries can mean ripping up roads, concrete or metal that protect the sensors, which requires organizing a police presence, the dig, the replacement and the replacement of the physical infrastructure – so instead of changing a $5 lithium battery, companies could spend as much as $5,000.”

Nye, who calls himself a practical realist and enjoys technology vision but loves to solve real time problems sensibly, said, “Our customers and partners are rolling out their IIoT deployments today, and choosing LoRaWAN because it works today, it’s less expensive today and it will work for decades to come. Who knows when carriers may decide to switch from CatM to NB-IoT, evolving as they did from 2G to 3, 4 and now 5G which can leave solution providers and enterprises without support?”

Nye also says simplicity always sells, which he is seeing as fundamental to “real world” IoT economics. “We’re finding more and more that the system integrators, enterprises adopting IIoT technologies and vertical industry solution providers don’t want to have to worry about network engineering. They want it secure, they want it ubiquitous and they want it affordable.”

When we asked Nye how ubiquitous Senet could be compared to a connectivity giant like Verizon, AT&T, Level3 and other North American service providers, Nye said “We’re not anywhere near as big and broad as the Tier 1s, and even the Tier 2s. We don’t need to be. We can turn up a complete LoRaWAN within days or weeks, which is part of the beauty of our business model. We’re a software driven company, and can design, provisioning, test and run IIoT data networks of extraordinary security and quality, tailored made to suit the business application. Our customers know they can grow with us as their deployments grow without getting locked into expensive, and often very complex, traditional services.”

LoRaWAN is the open global standard for carrier-grade LPWAN connectivity, and according to some analysts’ estimates, more than half of IoT deployments will be best served by adopting LPWAN solutions based on the low consumption of available battery power (in sensors on the edge of the network), and the economics associated with LPWAN vs. cellular, satellite and other approaches.

The LoRa Alliance – an open, non-profit association promoting the LoRaWAN protocol – of which Senet is an extremely active member – was introduced two years ago this March, and has grown quickly to include more than 400 members. Fans of the LoRaWAN protocol claim that it is differentiated by its bi-directionality, security, mobility and accurate localization, and that keeping the protocol open, governed and developed by the “community” ensures its sustainability over the short and long haul.

While others argue that 5G will change the game, the LoRa crowd continues to place its bets on the open protocol which leverages physical internet-based connectivity will continue to attract developers and systems integrators with substantially lower operational cost (including lower up-front capex), lightness of its network infrastructure requirements, a single global provisioning of all IoT and IIoT ‘end devices’ for security, redundancy, and mobility, and its support of bi-directional communications.

“With LoRaWAN, we’re able to deliver maximum flexibility, which is particularly important for enterprises and organizations, including governments funding smart cities, as they can use a mix of the best fixed, nomadic and mobile data gathering approaches,” Nye said in his presentation in Austin. “We have great traction as does the LoRaWan Alliance – there are significant advantages for a LoRaWAN public deployment vs. NBIoT and CatM.”

“For Trimble Water, water monitoring for utilities is not a future vision – it is a reality today and we are proud to be partnering to deliver connectivity for their IIoT solutions,” Nye said. “There’s a huge challenge in the industrial water and waste management industries, with what is described as non-revenue based water- leaks for example.” Nye called this problematic from an economic and environmental perspective.

“This is a great example of a deployment not well served by CatM,” Nye explained. “These data communications allow Trimble to manage and monitor for a decade or more. A 5-10 year battery life, made possible by LoRaWAN technology, is essential. In some cases, these sensors are just below ground, and LoRa can penetrate concrete and steel.”

While clearly Cat M1 and NB-IoT technologies will be right for many deployments (the investments in these technologies speak for themselves), certain use cases appear to be better served with LoRaWAN, and those are the focused use cases Senet appears to be going after.

We’ll continue to follow the battle of the IoT/IIoT connectivity and network protocols as the hyperconnected world of things continues to be realized after so many years of hype and promise. Verizon’s announcement certainly validated that the “network business” associated with IoT is becoming very real, and very investable.