It seems a widely-held opinion that Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) networks – and in particular LoRa – look set to take the IoT world by storm. This could be just as well, given the predicted huge number of IoT sensors and devices that will be connected over the next few years and the resulting ‘data tsunami’.
The value generated across the Internet of Things (IoT) sector is likely to be enormous for those positioned with the right solutions and services in place, but with LoRa happening so quickly, the most agile players are likely to reap substantial rewards.
Stream Technologies believes that it is one of these agile players. Its IoT-X connectivity enablement and billing platform, is already attracting substantial interest around the world. Initially developed for Stream’s own internal management of SIM lifecycles, it was then later made available to MNOs, with Caribbean operator Digicel being the first user. Stream says that IoT-X is fast becoming established as a leading LPWA subscription management platform, particularly given that IoT-X’s functionality has now been extended to include a LoRa WAN Network Server.
In the process of developing the platform for wider application, Stream claims that it has also addressed a number of other IoT related issues around Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). Finally, Stream says that its platform enables cellular operators in M2M/IoT to quickly extend their wireless services to include LPWA. As for other innovative entrants into the market looking to exploit LPWA, Stream is now inviting these players to test-run their solutions and services at the company’s new LPWAN incubator and demonstrator facility in Scotland. Intrigued, IoT Now spoke to Nigel Chadwick, its founder and CEO.
IoT Now: How did Stream Technologies become involved in LPWA technologies like LoRa?
NC: Stream was founded in 2000, so our team has been involved in M2M and IoT provisioning and connectivity management for many years – over which we have built a team with a real depth of expertise and experience in providing multiconnectivity services for IoT. We evolved from an MVNO based background specialising in M2M. That started in cellular, expanded out into satellite connectivity and latterly LPWA networks, including LoRa as the latest addition to the management functionality of its IoT-X platform. Stream evolved from operating in its earlier days as a successful MVNO connectivity provider to enterprise clients across most verticals in M2M and IoT, so it has gained a substantial and unique understanding of what is required to efficiently manage and deliver wireless connectivity to IoT clients.
Since 2005, we focused on developing our IoT-X platform to manage, monitor and monetise all the device connections relating to our own B2B customers. It was created to take the friction out of integrating with multiple network operators and at the same time building-in functionality to enable easy control of scalable volumes of connections across a large and diverse enterprise client base. We realised around a year and a half ago that our IoT-X platform and effectively, a replicated or ‘cloned’ concept of Stream in terms of providing all the support, expertise and related technical infrastructure within the IoT-X ‘wrap’, was an alternative solution to the connectivity platforms offered by the likes of Jasper or Ericsson. There exist a significant number of operators around the world who possess neither the requisite experience, expertise, or fully formed teams needed to efficiently and effectively manage M2M/IoT connectivity across their network footprint. In late 2014 we released our platform – that had evolved consistently over a 10-year period – for adoption by external parties and since then we have been on-boarding a growing number of Proof of Concepts and signing off Platform as a Service agreements. Concurrently, we have also been busy forging partnerships with value added service providers, to provide end customers with a choice of connectivity/data/device management options.
In January 2015, at CES, we realised that LoRa based technology was fast evolving and that it had the potential to really set the LPWAN sector alight. What we didn’t quite realise at that time, however, was the speed at which it would begin to spread around the globe. Stream remains agnostic towards connectivity types integrated into IoT-X, so developing the platform to include LoRa subscription and billing management functionality was a natural next step in its evolution. This was completed by the end of Q2 and in November our development team released a LoRa WAN Network Server element within the platform. We believe that it’s the only platform in the world that can simultaneously manage connectivity across 2G, 3G, 4G/LTE cellular, satellite and LPWA networks – including LoRa. Furthermore, it’s one of a very few platforms that manages subscription and billing on LoRa networks. This means flexibility in monetisation models, aggregation of multiple (discretely owned and operated) LoRa networks – effectively roaming management, simple device management, as well as enabling gateway and base station meta data and management.
So, IoT-X holds strong appeal to existing private LoRa network providers seeking to create a return on their investment through opening up their network to others, as well as enabling new entrants seeking to deploy and operate LoRa networks. In reality, IoT-X has the capability to enable the creation of entirely new types of network operators. We call them SVNOs (Super Virtual Network Operators), whereby IoT-X is primarily or initially deployed to manage a specific type of wireless connectivity for a particular solution use case. However, we can also effectively make available alternative carrier options to the ‘adopter’ of IoT-X by virtue of the fact that other carriers/network types are already integrated and ready to ‘switch on’. For example, we could enable a car manufacturer to manage its connected car programme across cellular, satellite and LPWA from a single platform and across different geographies if so required. LoRa and other LPWA technologies have the potential to change the IoT game in many ways – ostensibly it could displace some of the lower data solutions away from cellular mobile network operators.
IoT Now: What are the main barriers to deployment of the predicted billions of end points in IoT?
NC: We consider Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) has been one of the main, if not THE main barrier to exponential growth of connections in IoT. The major growth to date in IoT has been on cellular networks. The pricing models, whilst differentiated for IoT (from retail tariffs, for example), have nevertheless had to take account of infrastructure and licensing deployment models as well as work within investment return constraints and demands. The emerging LPWA networks to a large degree are free from these characteristics and this can help drive down TCO – not to forget that end point/sensor module pricing and operating longevity are additional factors also radically reducing TCO.
Stream is already seeing at this relatively early stage of LoRa network deployment new and innovative commercialisation models, as well as the entry of completely new players into the IoT global market that appear to really open up the prospect of accelerating growth towards tens of billions of connected end points over the next few years. Clusters of privately owned networks can be ‘aggregated’ and subscriptions managed across disparate networks using IoT-X. This is a game changer. These are the factors now combining to make the 80% of IoT connections forecast to be connected on non-cellular network infrastructures a reality.
IoT Now: Is Stream bringing down the TCO for networks?
NC: Given our investment over a ten year period into IoT-X we are able to offer AWS (Amazon Web Services) style pricing thereby radically reducing TCO. Stream’s combined infrastructure and technology, which we replicate for other networks as part of the IoT-X concept, vastly reduces the TCO of managing large volumes of connected devices. Because of the way the IoT-X infrastructure is designed, the technology is highly adaptive and flexible in terms of charging and billing models that can be applied to network usage. Revenue share, data bundles per sensor, per time period or on a pooled basis, as well as per message, and multiple others too are all possible. Furthermore, it is also possible to bundle in and price other services such as data exchange services similar to those provided by wot.io in New York, or any other company in the ecosystem that provide value adds such as device management and enterprise apps. You can bundle all these together and really drive down the TCO, so that it makes IoT a feasible play, resolves scalability issues and offers a rapid ramp-up of volume.
IoT Now: How do you cope with the widely differing connectivity requirements that the potentially massive variety of IoT sensors and backhaul infrastructure demand?
NC: This is a real challenge in the fast evolving connectivity environment of today and a challenge that has been at the forefront of our vision throughout evolving IoT-X, realising that diversity is inherent within the communications industry and is likely to stay. Cellular operators have to deal with the differing characteristics and relative attributes of everything from GPRS through to 4G/LTE, and then there are the satellite operators with highly variable data capacity throughputs. In this context, LPWA is just another variant.
Stream has always embraced and dealt with diversity in terms of designing and building a connectivity management platform to achieve a ‘single pane view and control’ solution, recognising that some primary connectivity types are more suited to certain IoT deployments than others. Then there are also secondary connectivity variants and different forms of backhaul as well. Not everywhere has wired backhaul capability – or even cellular for that matter such as at sea for example – or consider critical situation solutions that absolutely need to get data from A to B such as in emergency situations. There are plenty of such scenarios where LPWA networks might be deployed from which the data is then backhauled over satellite. At the LoRa Alliance meeting recently held in Rotterdam, Stream demonstrated managing routing and transiting data from sensors on a localised LoRa based network, backhauled over the Iridium satellite network.
IoT Now: How can cellular operators use Stream’s platform to get into LPWA and specifically LoRa?
NC: It’s pretty obvious that the vast majority of MNOs use subscriber management and billing platforms that have been developed for consumer and corporate voice and mobile services. But they don’t have such systems/platforms for managing IoT. LPWA network deployment introduces a specific requirement for networks to be able to efficiently and effectively manage both vast numbers of tiny data transactions and billing models that are built around M2M. Many cellular operators therefore don’t have the ability to manage M2M connectivity to any degree of granularity.
Stream’s IoT-X platform can enable management of these aspects easily through lightweight integration using APIs, because subscriber management is already integrated into the platform, which works with any wireless protocol. So, MNOs can take the platform and manage M2M connectivity in their cellular realm and extend it out to all the other integrations already on IoT-X, such as Iridium or Avanti for satellite; or any of the LPWA solutions; or they could say they’re not interested in managing M2M connectivity on cellular because they may already have an M2M connectivity management platform and opt to just use the LoRa functionality on its own.
It really is that simple. As mentioned earlier, Stream’s approach has always been a technology-agnostic one and it’s served us well. We effectively ‘future-proof’ both network operators and enterprise clients and this is becoming increasingly important as global clients scale worldwide.
IoT Now: So does this represent an evolution of Stream Technologies?
NC: Stream has for many years continued to innovate and as a result now deploys a technology set that not only addresses many of the challenges inherent to managing IoT connectivity, but in totality represents a unique design, with an engineering and operational approach to enable network operators of all types to deploy efficient, robust and reliable connectivity services for IoT. To achieve this we have continued to grow our technical development and support teams over a ten year period, resulting now in a team that is one of the most experienced and capable around. Our coding is all done in-house, meaning we continuously enhance the software upon which IoT-X is based, plus we can customise network operator or enterprise client requirements very quickly.
The outcome of this evolution is that Stream has effectively transitioned into a fully-fledged software house focused on fast tracking enhancing the functionality and capability of the IoT-X connectivity management platform and related APNs/backhaul infrastructure. The private ownership structure and our company DNA references ‘strategic patience’, whereby sticking to a pursuit of a vision over an extended timeframe has provided us with the technical know-how and experience to innovate, design, engineer and implement in a uniquely agile manner.
IoT Now: The fact is, however, that there are other LPWA technologies in the market. Is there a case for co-existence?
NC: There are quite a number of LPWA network variants out there. IoT-X is already integrated with a fair number of these and is ready to be adopted and deployed – today. The agnostic orientation of our platform, our use of a single APN, the design of our backhaul infrastructure, are all primed for and ready for managing subscriptions and billing across different LPWA technologies.
IoT Now: Do the different ISM regulations around the world create any problems for LoRa?
NC: The main challenge derives from the different radio bands that are used in the U.S. and the European Union, meaning companies having to ship completely different hardware most of the time. It’s not so much a logistical problem as more about planning where the devices are going to be deployed. Companies in the supply chain of equipment and solutions have to really think hard about what they are going to do with a particular device. The cost of components and the ease with which the device will interface with LoRa aren’t affected most of the time; it’s just that you have to buy a different radio chip. It rather destroys the idea of one size fits all!
IoT Now: What role can LoRa play in smart cities?
NC: In the context of smart cities, LoRa’s role is about enabling transit of data so that the data can then be made sense of, ultimately enabling decision making. We have seen data-driven decision making automated for many years in M2M and the smart city concept is the latest evolution of this – but involving much larger data sets from a wider variety of sensors, which usually also means more complex data sets. Stream is in the process of deploying at its Glasgow R&D centre one of the first UK city-wide LoRa Networks as part of our LPWA incubator and demonstrator facility. As such, we are encouraging companies and other organisations, including universities, to participate in our incubator facility, to demonstrate and test, or even develop, a range of solutions and technologies relating to LPWA, including LoRa.
Smart cities will be just one of several ‘themes’ encouraged by our team at the facility. One particular advantage of using LoRa in this type of urban-city situation is the substantial cost reduction it can offer over other networking technologies. Other advantages vested in LoRa include its ability to penetrate buildings better than 4G, its relatively easy and low deployment cost, and low power requirements. It opens the prospect of longevity – long term deployments in volume.
Stream, together with the Glasgow Caledonian University, is also working on other technologies under the auspices of a Knowledge Transfer Partnership which involve harvesting the energy emanating from wireless transmitters in the Glasgow City area. We have mapped the wireless energy topographies and our research is exploring the prospect of harvesting that energy to power sensors, which then allows assessment of reducing battery dependency, or perhaps extending the overall life of some sensors. Potentially this could enable significant reductions in battery size – perhaps by as much as 75% – using energy harvesting for top up. We’re exploring the concept of harvesting energy from broadcast sources such as television and radio transmissions and the irony hasn’t escaped us that we’re looking to use energy from one radio source to power another. How cool is that?