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There's a chance that a low-power wide-area network technology such as LoRa may catch fire worldwide, but one industry expert warns that LoRa has only a small window of opportunity.
Gartner analyst Mark Hung said LoRa's time is short because by the first quarter of 2017 carriers will have access to 3GPP technologies such as LTE Cat-M and NB-IoT.
"If time to market is a consideration, then proprietary LPWAN technologies such as LoRa and Sigfox can be considered," he said. "But the likelihood is that organizations will wait for 3GPP technologies as they gear up next year. However, it is possible that LoRa technology will survive as a niche player for utilities, agriculture and smart cities."
LoRa technology finds allies
Semtech Corporation, developer of LoRa technology, has been wasting little time forging relationships. In October 2016, it announced an agreement with Comcast for the cable company to deploy a trial network based on Semtech's LoRa technology during the fourth quarter of 2016 in Philadelphia and San Francisco. The pilot will focus on metering, asset tracking and other smart city applications. If successful, the network could expand to some 30 cities over the next two years.
Semtech also has been working with network provider Senet to develop a public network service based on LoRa technology. Will Yapp, vice president of business development at Senet, said LoRa appealed to them because it is unidirectional, bidirectional and can handle organizations' mobility needs. "It was the only LPWAN technology that met all those three criteria," he said.
Mark HungResearch VP, Gartner
LoRa also offers long battery life of at least 10 years, in some cases up to 20. In terms of distances, LoRa works well in dense urban environments and across multiple buildings, and LoRa sensors can connect to networks up to 15 to 30 miles away in rural areas, making it perfect for agricultural applications.
"We like the extensive ecosystem of device manufacturers, chipset providers and systems integrators that LoRa developed," Yapp added. "LoRa has a lot of Fortune 500 players involved such as GE, Bosch and Schneider Electric."
LoRa builds a strong business case
Senet's Yapp said that LoRa technology completely changes the business model in the utility industry. In the past, a tank monitor cost $250 and the network cost $10 per month. With LoRa and Senet, the monitors cost $40 and network charges are as low as $2 per month.
Thomas Butler, vice president of marketing at Mueller Systems, a device maker that has implemented LoRa chips into its Mi.Net products, added he's hopeful the new LoRa devices will be effective for water meter applications at municipalities. Butler said Mueller Systems has deployed LoRa devices in various municipalities around the country -- but, as it had only been deployed for three to six months, he didn't have specific benchmarks.
However, LoRa meters boast significant benefits. For starters, LoRa's battery life is a major selling point for cash-strapped municipalities looking to get the most bang for their buck. Even more importantly, with LoRa technology municipalities can now monitor water levels 24/7; they can take readings every hour on the hour, a capability that will let them identify any leaks early as well as track any unusual spikes in usage.
"This is a huge deal," Butler said. "In the past, municipalities would have to send people out in the field to take water meter readings. Typically, they would only take a reading once a month, sometimes even only once a quarter."
Butler added that the ability to take more frequent readings promises to help municipalities better manage their water, whether their goal is more effective conservation or simply to offer better customer service to residents when they experience spikes in water usage or leaks.
"Now, if there's a leak, the system can catch it and immediately notify the customer as well as get a repair person out to the home," he said.
LoRa technology: Big leaps and baby steps
Keep in mind that LPWAN technologies are still very new. Butler pointed out that most of the municipalities Mueller Systems works with run LoRa over a 900 MHz ISM network, but that may change in the months ahead. He added that products from Mueller Systems will soon support both the Senet and Comcast LPWAN networks.
"The real advantage to customers is that, if they go over a network like Senet's, they will be able to use other LoRa devices, such as pressure sensors from Trimble, and run them over the LPWAN network," he explained.
But Hung said the reality is that organizations are just rolling out these technologies, and they are so new that people simply don't have enough information as to how effective they really are.
However, LoRa has shown some great promise; it has made inroads in the U.S. as well as in France where carrier Orange SA has deployed it.
Yet Hung said the activity tends to be around the chipmaker Semtech as well as systems integration and network partners such as Senet and Comcast. While it appears that more chipmakers will get involved, this hasn't happened yet.
"LoRa is being sold really hard and it does have merit," Hung said, "But I think once the 3GPP technologies gather steam, LoRa will become more of a niche player."
Still, even if it's for municipalities, agriculture and other smart grid applications, LoRa technology might wind up building a substantial market. One thing's for sure: Over the next 12 to 18 months, all these competing wireless IoT networking technologies will emerge, and we'll have a better sense of which ones the market accepts.
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