LPWA – broadening the spectrum of choice
The technology behind the IoT, despite the inevitable hype, still needs a lot of development work done before our experience becomes truly immersive and ubiquitous. The hype, however, is largely being generated by the ‘look at all the wonderful things we can do with our clever sensors’ camp who seem to be ignoring the fact that the data generated by the expected trillions of IoT devices has to be carried from the sensors to the gateways and beyond. Indeed, the diversity of technical requirements for the multitude of verticals that could potentially be served is driving some of the fastest early movers to develop dedicated IoT radio networks independent of public networks, using Low Power Wide Area network (LPWA) technologies such as LoRaWAN.
The problem is that you can’t just hook IoT sensors up to the nearest Wi-Fi-enabled lamp post or 4G base station without some kind of secure interface tailored specifically to the main bearer network and, even then, the bearer network may not be up to the data loading that some IoT sensor arrays require. To find out more about this crucial area of the next big thing, IoT Now’s Pete Dykes spoke to David Smith, senior VP, engineering and innovation at IoT innovator MultiTech Systems.
IoT Now: David, can you position MultiTech’s involvement in the IoT for us?
David Smith (DS): Our portfolio reflects our belief that there’s no single technology or protocol that covers all of the IoT. Going forward, if one requires different technologies which all have different degrees of applicability, then they are going to need to co-exist. You can’t have a US$5 sensor that is also able to stream videos. At least not today – though perhaps in a few years’ time.
MultiTech as a company started out in the M2M world more than 40 years ago and our portfolio reflects our history of innovation in the space – even including analog modems which for some applications still work fine. In the U.S. however, analog devices are going to have decreasing viability over the next few years. Our company has moved more into wireless technologies, particularly, cellular, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. The ubiquity of these kinds of networks was one of the driving factors behind M2M’s growth and we have a portfolio that reflects that. Thus, we have a cellular portfolio that contains unique offerings with our cellular modules which are either embedded or act as out-of-the box products, and all of which are fully certified as end devices, just like a cell phone. This means that the person using them doesn’t have to do anything more from a regulatory standpoint to use or deploy them. Our cellular products cover the world and all technologies such as 2G, 3G, and LTE and, if someone comes up with some certification we don’t have, we’ll do it for them. We also have Wi-Fi and Bluetooth portfolios, as well as products offering GNSS, and of course, LPWA radio connectivity.
IoT Now: What plans do you have for tracking the new flavours of LTE that are in the pipeline?
DS: In the beginning of 2016 we’ll be coming out with our LTE Cat-1 devices and eventually with Cat-M devices. Interestingly, I think there’s a good possibility that the module suppliers and carriers may just skip over Cat-0 and go straight to
Cat-M – or one of the other competing standards being proposed. However, today the accepted plan is that we’ll introduce Cat-1 devices, then Cat-M and finally NB-LTE as they are released over the coming few years. In the IoT world, Cat-1 is a big step toward lower cost and lower complexity, with modules having significantly less complexity than their Cat-4 brothers. But the relatively modest gains in IoT applicability between Cat-0 and NB-LTE are such that Cat-0 may not be worth the effort to fully productise by module makers or deploy by carriers. This is because the ultimate goal will be performance on the order of NB-LTE and the effort required by the module industry to produce each module or for the carriers to deploy networks for these iterations is significant.
But we aren’t just about cellular. We will continue to follow Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technologies and offer products incorporating developments in those standards. And, of course, we are moving strongly into other emerging IoT technologies, such as the LoRa LPWA offering. We have been working with the LoRa technology for the last 18 months and have developed a product line to bring us into the world of IoT sensors and data gathering using low-power, low-energy, inexpensive and ubiquitous radios. We’re using LoRa radios from Semtech because they have much better operational characteristics for the IoT applications that most people want to use them for. As we go forward, we’ll always respond to our customers’ needs by providing the wireless capabilities that the IoT market requires.
Along those lines, we are even looking at WAVE technology as represented by V2X (Vehicle-to-Vehicle and Vehicle-to-Infrastructure), which is based on the 802.11p protocol. When that kicks off, you might see our products being put into vehicles, but you will definitely see our stuff on the infrastructure side.
IoT Now: What do you think are the particular advantages of deploying MultiTech solutions? What makes you stand out from the rest?
DS: I think one of the main ones is that you can take pretty much any of our products and they already have all the certifications you’ll need to bring your product to the market or deploy into the field, saving a great deal of development time, effort and cost.. That is something that is definitely unique and sets our products apart in the cellular and LPWAN world.
We also believe that if you’re going to use our products, you need to be able to do what you want with them. You need to be able to deploy into the places and environments that you want to deploy into and you need to have our product work with the equipment that you need it to work with. Take our cellular or LPWA gateways for example: they are used in a very broad set of markets for pretty much anything, so we try to make the deployment process as easy and as simple as possible; thus we have industrial versions that will exist indoors in an equipment closet or on the factory floor, as well as self-powered IP67 versions for the outdoors or on a cell tower.
We also want customers to feel that when they use our equipment, they’re not bound to one particular technology or one particular carrier. We have competitors who, for instance, only sell AT&T equipment, which is fine and we don’t have a problem with that, but we also have many customers who are deploying devices literally all over the world and right across the U.S. where they need to have, depending on the signal quality, devices which are compatible with Verizon or AT&T or T-Mobile or some other MVNO – it just depends on where they are being deployed. We support all of those and more.
IoT Now: What is your business model?
DS: In response to the consultative nature of IoT engagements, we are actively moving from a distributor-centric model to more of a hybrid sales strategy – retaining our outstanding roster of distributors around the globe, while simultaneously developing a strategic and regional sales and support organisation to better assist our customers. This is just another example of our commitment to making the adoption of our technology as easy as possible for our customers. Moreover, by getting closer to our customers, we believe, we can better respond to their specific needs and address their pain points in a more agile way.
IoT Now: What milestones do you expect to reach in the next 12 months and going forward to 2020?
DS: We will be moving strongly in several business directions simultaneously. One is, of course, tracking changes in the cellular world where we already have a strong presence and we’ll continue to be a big player in that. So, as LTE evolves, you’ll see us evolve right along with it and offer not only similar types of products to those we have now, but others that incorporate technologies that provide unique solutions for particular situations or environments. We will also continue to support other wireless standards such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. In the IoT world, we will be deepening and broadening what we’re currently doing with LPWA. We believe that IoT will require many different technologies depending on the application and we will plan to provide those technologies, and combinations of technologies, to enable solutions that don’t exist right now. So, during that period we’ll be launching gateways supporting multiple technologies simultaneously as well as end device modules with multiple capabilities.
IoT Now: And what about security in IoT? What are the issues there?
DS: Security is one of those areas that we invest heavily in now and that we’ll be working on through 2020 and beyond.
Our security approach incorporates a three-pronged strategy. Firstly we will provide a Trusted Identity capability so that it is possible for the network to be confident that that device is what it says it is. Secondly, we will provide secure execution and encrypted storage within the computing elements of this device so that it cannot have its code examined or changed. Third is physical tamper detection, which will stop the device from working if it is physically interfered with in any way. In addition, we are partnering with leaders in the data security space as well as across the M2M and IoT value chain to continually improve confidence in the security of MultiTech enabled solutions.
This approach goes both above and below the lower level protocols, so we end up with a solid stack of nested security features. What this means is that when our device talks to the network, the network can trust it is talking to a genuine device and the device can trust the network.
IoT Now: How do you see the market developing now and in the future in terms of the players and their products?
DS: I think the IoT market will follow the same pattern as most other emerging technology markets. I believe there is something of a respiratory cycle about it. The inhale has all these little companies starting up, doing their own thing and pushing the envelope in their respective areas, and then the exhale comes with a period of consolidation, which may followed by another wave of growth and another period of consolidation. I think IoT is going to follow a similar cycle but, in the case of the IoT and the rapid growth that’s expected, it could be more like panting than regular breathing!
IoT is very fragmented at present with many smaller players, but you do have some of the big players such as IBM, Cisco, GE and ARM in there as well. What’s missing at the moment is that people focus on the endpoint side of the IoT, but forget that a network is needed to connect to. Many of the existing cellular carriers as well as younger start-ups are looking at deploying LPWA networks. From our discussions with the large carriers, it seems they’re not looking at the technology itself with suspicion, but they are scratching their heads and thinking ‘how can we make money at this?’. A fair amount of work needs to be done to develop profitable business models that a large global or nationwide network provider can adopt to drive the deployment of public networks. In the interim, you should expect to see municipalities and other government entities working with companies to deploy smaller public networks and many privately operated networks springing up as well. We believe LoRaWAN lends itself particularly well to the development of private networks in certain vertical markets where both security and control of the network is important – for example in oil and gas.
However, I think that once LPWA networks start getting deployed by companies such as Actility, Orbiwise and Proximus, who are now deploying municipal and larger-sized networks, the big carriers will then watch to see if those networks are profitable or not and, if they are, perhaps we will see some consolidation in the marketplace. That way, the larger carriers don’t have to work the business model out for themselves.
Another thing that could change over time is the frequency spectrum used by IoT networks. Right now, a majority of LPWA IoT networks are based on regional ISM unlicensed spectrum, but it should be obvious that Europe, which doesn’t have too much unlicensed bandwidth available, has the potential to quickly run out, and so eventually may the U.S. – plus the rest of the world. As part of our technology roadmap, we expect that by the end of 2017, use of licensed bands for IoT networks will be becoming more commonplace – if not dominant – as growth is expected to be really rapid and, while it might then drop off a little, such growth will quickly outstrip the unlicensed bands’ ability to support the huge and growing number of deployed devices.
IoT Now: So where does MultiTech stand today in relation to all this?
DS: I think that today, MultiTech is very well positioned in the IoT world as we have the right products and the right vision to not only supply and follow the market, but to be right there at the front and help to guide it. I know others in this space may say similar things, but I happen to think it’s true for us, especially from the IoT security standpoint. In early 2016, capabilities in our products will emerge which will allow very fast deployment of secure networks and devices, so that by the end of 2016, news of new, secure, capable IoT networks or new smart cities being rolled out should almost be a daily occurrence – which is faster than many analysts have predicted, and MultiTech we will be right there driving that growth.