We are moving towards a more ‘connected world’ – there are no two ways about it. Interest in the ‘Internet of Things’ (more like the ‘Internet of Everything’!) is at an all-time high – and it is not limited to only home automation and connected/autonomous cars either. According to a recent McKinsey report, the overall value of the smart cities industry will touch the $400 billion mark by the end of this decade, driven by steadily increasing mass adaptation of IoT practices. The importance of Semtech’s proprietary LoRa technology (Low power, high Range) – often dubbed as the next-gen wireless standard for IoT deployment – comes into the picture here. In what follows, we will take a look at the latest trends with LoRa & IoT, and how the technology is expected to grow in the foreseeable future:
Although it is still at a relatively nascent stage, LoRa Wide Area Networks (LoRaWAN) has already found widespread acceptance among telecom companies and smart service providers across the globe. LoRaWAN networks are currently in operation in 50+ countries – with the number going up every quarter. The latest in this line is Australia, where LoRa was officially chosen as the country’s very first IoT network (in late-January). Over the next five years or so, more countries – including the not-so-advanced nations – will switch over to the LoRa technology, thanks to its manifold advantages.
Dominance in the wireless technology segment
By 2020, it has been estimated that close to 1.6 billion smart devices will be powered by the LPWAN technology. The nature of these devices will be varied, including transceivers, actuators, wireless sensors, trackers, and other advanced tools that would be useful in smart cities in particular, and an overall smart environment in general. This, in turn, opens up significant growth prospects for LoRa (along with other technologies like Sigfox, and 3GPP solutions like NB-IoT). Close to 150 new IoT metering/tracking equipments for smart cities will be set up with the LoRa devices. It can be safely said that, without the arrival of LoRaWAN, this progress would not have been possible.
Lower costs; unprecedented battery performance
These two factors should emerge as the main drivers of the LoRa technology in a big way. Built with the ‘chirp-based spectrum’ designed by Semtech, LoRa offers seamless bidirectional communication (with most of its rivals offering only the regular unidirectional support). Since only unlicensed, low-frequency bands are used, the coverage remains excellent – while the costs are minimal. What’s more, devices with LoRa chipsets typically offer 8-10 years of battery life, with the power requirements being very low (say, weather tracking a couple of times in a day).
Note: The actual frequencies used by LoRa varies across regions. In North America, the protocol uses 915 MHz for operations, Europe goes with 868 MHz, while the technology uses a very low 433 MHz frequency band in Asia.
Spike in market value
At the end of last year, the worldwide market value of the LPWAN industry (LoRa, Sigfox and LTE-NB1) stood at just a tick over $1 billion. This figure will jump to a whopping $24.5 billion by December 2021 – at a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of more than 89%. Experts from the software development and IoT domains expect that the total count of LPWAN-powered IoT tools will exceed 700 million by that time (as reported by Business Intelligence (BI)). In comparison, the growth in short-range technologies like Zigbee and wifi will be modest – and will reach 72% by 2025, less than 2% increase over their current penetration rate. Consumer electronics, where LPWAN finds least usage, will remain the main driver of short-range technologies.
Ease of ensuring countrywide coverage
Around 250 LoRa base stations are enough to cover the entire country of Switzerland. For Netherlands, approximately 500 such base stations are required. The LoRa technology – announced at 2015’s Mobile World Congress – has come a long way since the release of its first version (v.1.0) in June 2015 (network tests have been conducted in 60+ countries). As the requirement for setting up base stations/units is on the lower side, the cost for telecom companies (for deploying LoRa in smart cities) remains manageable. What’s more, LoRaWAN can be integrated in both private (with 100+ sensors) as well as public networks – delivering hybrid capabilities.
Growth in the LoRa Alliance
Earlier this month, Wipro became the newest member of the LoRa alliance. From the time of its start back in 2015 (with 20 members, including Semtech, Cisco, IBM, etc.), the size of the alliance has grown at a rapid clip – and at present, it has over 400 members. The companies in the LoRa alliance are classified under different categories – ‘Sponsor Members’, ‘Institutional Members’, ‘Adopter Members’ and ‘Contributor Members’. The alliance operates as a non-profit organization, and is in charge of driving the LoRaWAN technology into newer markets and for innovative IoT-related practices. Within the next couple of years or so, several more companies (including major national telecom players) will join the LoRa alliance – swelling its size further.
Moving beyond IoT bottlenecks
Cisco predicts that there will be 50 billion connected devices by the end of 2020 (nearly double of the 28.4 billion figure estimated for 2017). While there are no doubts over the rapid proliferation of the ‘Internet of Things’, there are a few limitations – encryption standards, network capacities, device/battery capabilities, etc. – that do appear as potential inhibitors. However, as LoRa technology grows in popularity and becomes more polished, these problems will recede to the background. Both network performance and battery capabilities are boosted by the LoRaWAN protocol – thanks to the adaptive data rate algorithm of the latter. Data can be broadcasted with the help of the bidirectional functionality of LoRa – and encryption (128 AES encryption) is available at three different levels (application, network, device). A fast, reliable, secure and cheap wireless standard for IoT – that’s what LoRa has the potential to become.
Note: Yet another high point of LoRaWAN is the high number of nodes (running into millions) that can be supported by each gateway. Building up a LoRa infrastructure from scratch is inexpensive and can be done quickly – and impressive distances can be covered by individual signals.
Cost advantage over cellular networks
With a range of close to 10 kilometers in urban areas (shooting up to well over 30 kilometers in suburban/rural locations) – there is clear daylight between the coverage capacities of LoRa and other cellular networks. The technology is built in a ‘star-on-star topology’ (instead of the traditional mesh infrastructure) – and offers around 10 times more utility over its lifetime as well. The cost advantages of LoRa are also remarkable: in a recent study, it was found that cellular networks for machine-to-machine (M2M) operations have an annual price of $25-$30. The corresponding figure for the unlicensed LoRaWAN frequency bands, on the other hand, hover around the $10 mark (also lower than the $15-$20/year cost for NB-IoT). Not surprisingly, this has put LoRa at a significant competitive advantage – and helped it capture a much higher market share.
Application in various fields
LoRa is not the best fit for consumer-IoT, where wifi, cellular data, and to a lesser extent, Bluetooth, will remain the most-used technologies. However, for managing mass operations and tasks for creating smart cities – Semtech’s platform is among the most ideal alternatives. Right from smart parking, management of public utilities, petcare and monitoring smart street lights, to smart waste management/disposal, pollution control and energy-saving, agriculture, health and predictive disaster management (e.g., regular tracking of the condition of a bridge, to detect probable damages) – LoRa finds acceptance in a wide range of activity domains and applications. SK Telecom – a leading South Korean telecom operator – released a commercial LoRaWAN network in July last year, with a view to cover 99% of the national population. In the near future, most things related to smart cities IoT will be running on LPWAN (LoRa and Sigfox) – that’s for sure.
The bandwidth factor
The LoRa technology is never going to be good (read: fast) enough for casual web browsing or playing online games…anything that requires a high bandwidth. However, the network does what it is meant to do perfectly well – with the maximum bandwidth 32 kb/s being more than adequate for receiving/transmitting/broadcasting data to and from sensors at prespecified time intervals. To put things in perspective, short-range technologies like Zigbee and wifi are not strong enough (in terms of coverage) for this purpose. Semtech’s LoRa targets a separate, niche segment of the overall IoT market – and it delivers what it promises.
Rise in the number of IoT connections
We have already highlighted the expected surge in the number of ‘connected devices’ over the next 3-4 years. On a more micro-level, the volume of IoT connections worldwide is also expected to expand at exponential rates. Between 2015 and 2025, there will be a 350% increase in the number of IoT connections (6 billion vs 27 billion). Around 28% of these – coming to 7.5 million – will be high-range, and the rest will be supported by low-range technologies. Industry experts opine that by 2025, 4 out of every 10 long-range IoT connections will be powered by LPWAN, with LoRa leading the way.
Overcoming the growth constraints
While the benefits of adopting the LoRa technology for IoT are pretty much evident, there are a fair few challenges that have to be considered too. For starters, there is a dearth of qualified experts with experience in LPWAN IoT platforms. Chalking up the technical specifications of projects can be tricky – since there might remain gaps in understanding how LoRa is to be implemented, and what the objective(s) of the IoT operation would be. The rather high price tags of sensors ($15-25) – integral to LoRa deployment – must not be lost sight of either. With greater awareness, more dedicated training by specialists, and continued support from major telecom players – LoRa is expected to resolve these issues and continue to grow.
As per an October 2016 report by ON World, the LPWAN services market will also witness manifold growth in the next half a decade, reaching up to $75 billion by the end of 2025. LoRa networks already have a strong presence in European countries like Netherlands, France and Belgium – and the technology is steadily making its way into the markets of Germany, Czech Republic, Italy and Denmark. In India, Tata Communications will collaborate with HPE to create the largest IoT network in the world. The development and implementations of LoRa technology have already been exciting – and there are plenty of scopes for the technology to grow bigger in future.
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