Low Power Radio Networks for the Internet of Things – a view from Stream Technologies
In today’s fragmented multiple network environment, managing services to provide quality customer engagement whilst maximising revenues is a challenge for service providers. Where distributed networks can now include hundreds of thousands of Internet of Things (IoT) connections, this challenge is only getting more complex as members of the Stream Technologies executive team explain.
Stream Technologies began in 2000 as a pure M2M company, looking to make the management of M2M devices simpler for providers. But as the market has changed and evolved, so too has Stream. The company specialises in reducing the complexity of not just M2M, but also global IoT connectivity. With over 500 enterprise and SME customers across more than 25 industry sectors – including smart meters, telematics and broadcast solutions – Stream offers a wide choice of wireless networks and technologies.
“In 2005 we realised we need to take the friction out of the management of networks for our customers, especially those who have to manage multiple network connections, such as 100,000s of smart meters,” explains Nigel Chadwick, CEO of Stream Technologies. “And so we developed a platform to manage the lifetime of a connection –one that also integrated low power radio connections.”
Whilst there were a handful of solutions available from the large, traditional telecoms vendors, they were expensive and disruptive. Some major mobile service providers also had products, but these were focused on connectivity and tied to their cellular networks. Stream saw a clear market gap – to use its internal platform and make it available to third parties, such as the 300 or so tier two mobile operators who want offer M2M solutions but didn’t have platforms of their own. “The Stream IoT-X Unified Access Connectivity Environment unifies all forms of connectivity,” says Alan Tait, CTO of Stream Technologies. “We’ll connect anything to anything – it doesn’t matter if its radio or satellite, IP or non-IP. To us it’s just a connection. We make it easy for customers to manage and monetise their networks.”
“If you look at a real smart city deployment, which is where IoT is going in the short term,” adds Tracy Hopkins, SVP for Low Power Radio at Stream Technologies, “each application has a different requirement. That could be QoS, high bandwidth, low power, mobility, etc. All feature sets are different. Stream enables enterprise customers to provide all that connectivity. We see IoT-X as the glue that connects it all together.”
Low Power Radio
So what does that mean specifically for low power radio networks (LPR), and why is LPR so important for the IoT?
“LPR is about opening up the entire area of IoT that is not served by cellular or WiFi, or indeed satellites,” says Tait. “Eighty per cent of all IoT connections will be non cellular – either through hotspots or ad hoc connections. We see it not as competition to mobile, but rather as complementary, and essential to the future success of IoT.”
Tracy Hopkins agrees, adding that LPR offers many advantages over cellular solutions. “Machines talk in a very different way to people, sending small amounts of data at a time,” she says. “Instead of call quality and latency being important, the cost of operation becomes critical. LPR is licence free, has low power operation and low technology cost – no need for SIM cards and associated chips. Also important is the fact that LPR can work across multiple frequency bands, especially sub-GHz networks, which provides more coverage from less infrastructure.
“There is no one size fits all solution for low power radio, rather the best solutions match the best technological approach to each specific application,” she says. “I joined Stream because of their approach and their ability to aggregate all types of communication networks. You can now deploy an IoT network that uses all types of physical layer, which I’ve never seen before, one that addresses multiple applications. The result is we are seeing an urgent global demand for IoT-X.”
Stream will be working with the newly-formed LoRa Alliance, established by microprocessor firm Semtech to help standardise Low Power WANs for mobile operators.
“We like how they are developing ecosystems of partners, especially for network provision and hosting,” says Tait. “We believe we can provide hosted management services for LoRa networks, as we have the management technology to bridge mobile network operators’ cellular and LPR solutions, enabling their subscribers to receive a single data path for their traffic – and equally important a single invoice.”
The company is also looking at non-LoRa technologies, such as the Orion Security Network. It operates data collections and provisioning for the European private data network, routing data to their customers when they need it via the IoT-X solution.
“It is important not to focus on only one technology, but to support them all,” explains Tait. “All we need is the specification of the device, some test sensors and base stations, and then we can roll out service. While we focus on low power applications, a lot of systems we have built can work on satellite-based non-IP as well as cellular. There are far more similarities between them than differences.”
It’s not just LPR, though. “We find the best solution for the job,” explained Tait. “We can aggregate data for a customer, from LPR, wi-fi or satellite. We can provide subscriber segregation and data aggregation, routing and security, and essentially direct it accordingly. Provide management solutions onto lots of different networks that don’t have these capabilities.”
Unified access is vitally important for network operators. Whilst they might not have dedicated IoT platforms themselves, they do have their own networks – but they can only offer services on their own networks. IoT-X can help them manage their own network, as well as service their customers outside their home market.
“From a mobile operator perspective, it’s all integrated,” explains Tait. “Their customers don’t have to speak to other network operators. IoT-X gives them the ability to have one unified access environment – one screen.”
Whilst mobile operators have numerous roaming agreements in place, these can be too expensive for all but the largest enterprises. Tier One operators also have limited footprints and associated agreements, all of which use different platforms a pricing systems, and so the market is becoming fragmented.
It’s a similar move to what happened to fixed ISPs, with network operators accepting that they are becoming transits providers inside their own markets. Roaming is good for voice and consumers; how much does data actually cost? Whilst it works technically, it doesn’t work as well commercially.”
And it’s not just a technical challenge. The management of M2M data around the world, dealing with applicable laws and safe harbour issues, are all essential components of M2M management.
“Mobile network operators are trying to use their existing expertise, IP and staffing, which have been built to support voice and data in consumer and corporate markets,” says Chadwick. “Systems that have evolved for cellular don’t enable the level of granular control that is absolutely essential to realtime M2M data monitoring. Very few mobile operators have been successful in changing their processes and teams to deal with M2M.”
“On one side are large platform companies, and on the other side service providers and operators with their fragmented ecosystems,” Chadwick adds. “We are far more flexible, agnostic and easier to deploy, and a lot less expensive. IoT-X creates a new ecosystem, completely agnostic to carrier services. Plus we add technologies to make even the cellular services more resilient and easier to manage. Our platform is here today; and it works.”