The LoRa Alliance, announced in January, plans to use the annual Mobile World Congress (MWC)—taking place next week in Barcelona—as its launchpad. Such a setting is fitting, because LoRa puts the spotlight on cellular operators’ intent to partake more actively in a potentially very lucrative space that they consider to be theirs: the near-ubiquitous wireless connectivity necessary to enable the Internet of Things (IoT).
With the announcement, LoRa pits a well-established—yet single-source—wireless interface up against two other well-heeled, low-power efforts: the behemoth but slow-moving IEEE 802.11ah standards body, and the rapidly moving, well-funded, Sigfox.
Sigfox announced mid-February a series D funding round to the tune of $115 million to help fulfill its mission to go global. It has already deployed networks in France, Spain, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. Next up: the Americas, Asia and the rest of Europe.
At stake is nothing less than the right to be the ultra-low-power pipe of choice for the operators and industries that will be connecting between 20 billion and 50 billion devices to the IoT in the next three to five years.
Fuelling Sigfox’s deployment and funding success to date are its ties with network operators such as Telefonica, SK Telecom and NTT Docomo Ventures, which joined the recent round of funding, along with Eutelsat and industrial partners such as GDF Suez and Air Liquide.
In Sigfox’s most recent deployment success story, Aerea—the sole Sigfox network operator in the Netherlands—partnered with telecom operator Tele2 to deploy a machine-to-machine/IoT network. Tele2 is a fast-growing Swedish operator that currently has 14 million customers in nine countries.
That partnership is an indicator of how Sigfox works—the operators don’t actually own the connection. Instead, Sigfox runs the network. It takes the data from the wirelessly enabled devices via a gateway over a range of anywhere from 2 kilometers to upwards of 15 kilometers, sends the data to its servers, and then sends the data to the operator.
The new LoRa Alliance operates differently, putting the network ownership in the hands of the operator. Its stated mission, not unlike that of Sigfox, is to standardize the low-power wide area networks (LPWANs) being used to enable the IoT, smart cities, machine-to-machine and industrial communications. It, too, is optimized for long range (at least 15 kilometers), extending to 50 kilometers under the right circumstances.
However, unlike Sigfox, "The operators actually came up with the idea for the alliance," said Hardy Schmidbauer, director of wireless at Semtech. Semtech’s low-power, long-range radio is at the core of the Alliance, which now has a solid core of telecom operators, including, Bouygues Telecom, KPN, SingTel, Proximus, Swisscom, and FastNet (part of Telkom South Africa).
"Most operators see Sigfox as a competitor," said Schmidbauer, adding that the alliance budded when operators came to Semtech looking for a means to connect wirelessly to the IoT nodes in a standard fashion that’s compatible between regions. Now, he said, KPN, Proximus and Fastnet will be rolling out LoRa networks this year.
The impetus for operators is concern that, while the machine-to-machine communications currently being funneled through their networks is interesting, the battery life and cost of devices that connect to their current networks means they will only be able to tap into 10 percent of the biggest IoT application: The Internet of Objects, or IoO. This is, according to figures being used by the LoRa Alliance, will equal more than 65 billion objects by 2020. This is a number that has captured the operators' attention.
Where Lies Wi-Fi and 802. 11ah?
Between the IoO and M2M lie short-range networks for IoT, primarily Bluetooth Smart, and of course Wi-Fi. While Bluetooth Smart has gained traction for short range, the current instantiation of Wi-Fi consumes too much power, lacks the range, and is too connection-oriented for the wide-area network, said Schmidbauer. Even the new standard under development, 802.11ah—a scaled-down version of 802.11ac with 1- and 2-MHz channels and lower data rates—still, "lacks the link budget for longer ranges, and uses OFDM, which consumes too much power," he said.
So, while operators have managed to incorporate the various iterations of Wi-Fi into their business model over the years, coupling it with their cellular networks, it looks for the foreseeable future that LoRa and Sigfox will be the long-range IoT and IoO option.
Manna for Radio Makers
Regardless of the direction operators take, radio makers stand to reap the rewards of long-range and short-range IoT. While Semtech currently is the only radio provider for LoRa-based systems, Microchip Technology has formally committed to the LoRa Alliance, and according to Schmidbauer will be developing modules, initially based on Semtech's transceivers.
According to Steve Caldwell, vice president of Microchip’s Wireless Products division, it made sense to join the alliance. "We see a lot of customers with so many applications," Caldwell said. "One use study is IBM and Cisco [also LoRa Alliance members] redesigning street lights to go on and off. But the model ranges from point to point, to public to private networks, with gateways and aggregators.”
However, with a wide and deep bench of wireless interfaces in its quiver, Microchip sees LoRa as just another means of getting its customers connected.
This radio agnosticism is shared by Silicon Laboratories, hot off the purchase of Bluegiga, a Wi-Fi/Bluetooth module and stack developer. "The sub-gigahertz ISM band [used by LoRa, Sigfox and 802.11ah] is populated with lots of proprietary radios," said James Stansberry, senior vice president for IoT solutions at Silicon Labs. "We look at the application and may have something similar [to LoRa] in the future,” he said. "We have an advantage in that we can adopt and develop [whatever’s needed]."
While the LoRa and Sigfox share many similarities, including long ranges and battery lifespans in excess of 10 years, Schmidbauer said he isn’t confident that Sigfox’s ultra narrowband radio with BPSK signaling is a good option—compared to Semtech’s (LoRa’s) radio—when it comes to the two-way communications necessary for intelligent IoO or IoT. Further analysis of the two will be required when Sigfox releases more details of its interface.
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