Recent years have seen a proliferation of technologies and standards centred on low power wide area network (LPWAN) communications, resulting in a highly diverse market landscape. Fredrik Stålbrand, senior analyst at Berg Insight, interviews Sara Brown, senior director of marketing at MultiTech, talking about the company’s approach to LPWA and applications in the agricultural sector
Fredrik Stålbrand: There is a high level of diversity with regards to the LPWA market. Could you share your view on the current state of LPWA technologies?
Sara Brown: LoRaWAN seems to be by far the most mature of the LPWA technologies having come from an experimental stage back in 2014, to commercial hardware in 2015, to adopter proof of concepts (PoCs) in 2016, to enterprise pilots in 2017, and now deploying at scale. It has been some years already since the cellular carriers began promoting licensed LPWA options, but their networks are not yet mature, although we are seeing an uptick in demand. I expect Cat M1 to scale more quickly in the US and narrowband-IoT (NB-IoT) to scale more quickly in EMEA. These licensed networks are still really in the PoC stage as deployable hardware becomes available and network infrastructure scales.
Ultimately, we believe that these are very complimentary technologies, each with its own sweet spot in the IoT ecosystem. That’s why we have commercialised LoRaWAN-based hardware as well as Cat M1 and NB-IoT to join our portfolio of 2G, 3G and 4G cellular products, many of which also incorporate other communications technologies including Wi-Fi and Bluetooth as well as wired protocols like Ethernet, serial and USB.
FS: What are the key points that companies need to consider when it comes to investing in LPWA technologies?
SB: What’s really exciting about these new LPWA technologies is that they are opening the door to a whole class of applications that simply didn’t make business sense before due to cost, range or power requirements. In addition to these big three – when it comes to choosing between options there are a couple of factors that rise to the top of my list of considerations:
- Tolerance for latency and possible packet loss – even small amounts of data may need to be truly real-time in, for instance, medical monitoring or emergency response scenarios, others, may not, for example, soil moisture content is not likely to change significantly if you have to wait five minutes.
- Spectrum management to avoid interference – in unlicensed LPWA solutions, there are ways to prevent interference, but may require some additional effort beyond dedicated/licensed spectrum solutions.
- Where are your end points – do you require deep in-building penetration?
- Financial models – do you prefer to finance the project as a capital expense or as operational expense; from a risk perspective, what kind of service level agreement do you require/are you willing to pay for?
Of course, if you’re looking for high bandwidth to move a lot of data, such as in video streaming applications, you probably shouldn’t be looking at LPWAN.
FS: What are the main challenges at the device level and how should they be addressed?
SB: Today, the principal challenge at the device level is the availability of what I call consumable edge devices. Here again LoRaWAN is ahead of licensed technologies by simple virtue of time – with more than 100 certified devices. Nevertheless, this year will be particularly important for vertical market specific edge devices to be certified, manufactured and marketed at scale. I think we’re still a few years away from that kind of adoptability for NB-IoT. There are certified modules, but, as we all know, it takes time to integrate a module into a finished device.
FS: Which vertical markets have been leading the adoption of these technologies?
SB: We have seen a lot of activity particularly in the smart cities and smart buildings space, as well as agriculture. Other areas include energy and utilities, medical and even transportation.
FS: How does LPWA address the requirements of agriculture?
SB: All of LPWA’s big three benefits – range, cost and power optimisation – are particularly wellsuited for the needs of smart farming. Farmers tend to operate on razor thin margins, which makes the cost to deploy a sensor monitoring solution critical to its success. In the case of LoRaWAN, it’s important to note that a significant portion of farmland is operated in remote areas, many of which may not have access to cellular technology. LoRaWAN technology enables farmers to build their own network, covering miles of farmland, and backhaul to the internet using their local Wi-Fi or Ethernet connection.
FS: What type of applications do MultiTech’s solutions enable in the agricultural sector and what are the impacts for farmers?
SB: MultiTech is rapidly growing its footprint in the agriculture space, with devices monitoring all sorts of things from animal location and behaviour, generators, feeders, soil and leaf moisture, weather, irrigation systems, waste water and pest control, as well as environmental contaminants, as it is particularly important to know if toxic gas is present in barns, grain silos and other locations. Ultimately, the impact is providing the information farmers need to make better decisions in order to optimise their costs, safety and, most importantly, yield – which is critical to a farmer’s own bottom line, and to addressing what the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations refers to as a growing food crisis.
FS: Will agricultural solutions be deployed on public LPWA networks or will large commercial farms and cooperatives prefer private LPWA networks?
SB: I think we’ll see a combination – in fact we already are. Some of our customers in the agriculture market are looking to utilise both licensed and unlicensed LPWA technologies to create their own last mile networks to extend public cellular coverage – aggregating the data from the LoRaWAN network and transmitting it back to the internet using the nearest Cat M1 or NB-IoT tower. Ultimately, I think geography will be a critical factor in this particular space, as it will still be at least a year before the cellular carriers are able to offer ubiquitous LPWA network coverage. Historically some excellent farmland has been left out of range.