As organisations begin to roll-out low power radio (LoRa) and low power wide area (LPWA) connectivity, Michele Mackenzie, a principal analyst at Analysys Mason, interviews Sara Brown, the senior director of marketing at MultiTech, to learn more about how the technologies are being applied to smart city deployments.
Michele Mackenzie: Could you start by introducing MultiTech and outlining your offering for the LPWA market?
Sara Brown: MultiTech has been connecting machines since 1970. Our product range has evolved from analogue solutions to communications equipment for the IoT. Our latest offerings are in the LPWA space, where we are among the first to commercialise LoRa technology. For the LoRaWAN market place, we have a set of programmable LoRa gateways, which function operationally as base stations for a LoRa network. They can communicate with thousands of LoRa endpoints. For the endpoints, we have two different LoRa technology based modules. Of course, our LoRa technology product line is just a small subset of the devices we design, manufacture and sell including a full range of cellular devices and embedded modems.
MM: We understand that smart cities are one of your target verticals. How does LPWA address the requirements of smart cities?
SB: There has always been a pie in the sky idea of the smart city potential. There were many assets that we wanted to monitor, some of them not particularly high value, but the business case and return on investment (ROI) were hard to justify. Before, that is, the commercialisation of LPWA. Let’s just give one example; paper towel dispensers in a municipal building. The maths doesn’t work to use a cellular radio to monitor them, in part because of the cost and limitations of the hardware with regards to power consumption, but also because of the cost of the service. LPWA addresses those issues. It lowers cost significantly from a hardware and services perspective but also, a key advantage that LoRaWAN has over cellular is outstanding inbuilding propagation. Ultimately smart cities will be supported by different kinds of technologies. There will be wired connections, Wi-Fi and a requirement for cellular. The smart city doesn’t really exist today; there are smart city applications, but no real smart cities. When we find a way to aggregate the data from all those different types of connected assets that’s when we truly get into smart cities.
MM: How are your products and services being used to meet the demand for LPWA in smart cities?
SB: Our products are being adopted in all sorts of interesting ways for individual smart city applications. We aren’t seeing fully converged services yet, although some of our customers are working on that. Customers are deploying LPWA for building management, parking applications, street lighting, and indoor and outdoor digital signage. The number and type of applications is proliferating. It’s exciting because over the years we have seen lots of monitoring of very high value assets which yield good returns. That goes back to my business case point; it’s complex to put a sensor in a parking slot, but LPWA provides the technology and a justifiable business case. Municipalities manage a wide range of assets which span many different types of verticals – waste management, parking, traffic management and so on. CIOs of large municipalities are looking at how to bring all this data together to enable new services – the most important of which is effective emergency management to ensure public safety.
MM: Will smart city applications tend to reside on public LPWA networks or will city governments prefer private LPWA networks?
SB: There are a lot of public networks rolling out today and that’s a very good model. That said, some service providers and enterprises prefer a private network that they can control and manage on their own. Let’s take a hotel as an example. A hotel may install a LoRa gateway on its roof to control and monitor various endpoints inside the building such as HVAC and access control. Once that network is in place, it has the capacity to sell its network services to neighbouring buildings or the municipality for traffic management. There is lots of interest in this private model, more so in the US. This may be because of the geography and the need to plug coverage gaps.
MM: How do MultiTech customers benefit from the technology?
SB: Our direct customers are benefitting from LPWA technology in terms of it addressing the three pain points that have been around in M2M for a long time: range, battery life and cost. LPWA is a good fit and enables them to monitor assets that they couldn’t have monitored before. But, as I mentioned before, the ultimate holy grail is the connected city, better equipped to serve customers whether that’s managing the power grid, delivering clean water or managing traffic flows – and ultimately handling emergency situations in a way that was not possible before because the silos weren’t connected and coordinated.
MM: What is the main challenge that smart cities must overcome now?
SB: The biggest challenge to the success of the deployment of smart cities is political, not technological. A police department has all its data, waste management has its data, the utility has all its data – they don’t want to share with other departments. And that is the biggest challenge for the municipal CIO. And it’s a political one.