I could not be more excited, y’all! Thanks to Amazon announcing its plans to build out its Sidewalk network with professionally installed equipment that can deliver signals for up to five miles, and more partnerships from LoRaWAN network company Senet, we are set to have two competing nationwide Low-Power Wide-Area Networks (LPWANs) for the IoT.
I had thought this showdown was going to be the biggest story of 2021 (Matter was my other big story for 2021, so I’m 0 for 2 here). Instead, we’ll see coverage expand and devices that use each network launch in 2022. So if you’re a developer, which network should you choose?
First, let’s tackle some basic information. LPWANs provide coverage for connected devices that don’t need to send a lot of data. These networks need to be relatively inexpensive because no one wants to put an expensive radio or pay exorbitant data costs to send data from a smoke detector or security sensor. Ideally, they can provide coverage for fixed or mobile assets, and they need to conserve power because many of the devices that use the network will run on batteries.
With these capabilities, the right LPWAN could open up an entirely new category of connected devices, from dog collars that track your pet without requiring a subscription to remote sensors for oil pipelines. Even in the home or factory, having a LoRaWAN or Sidewalk network could help when the power or internet goes out by keeping critical devices online. The cellular world has already recognized the value of LPWANs, which is why it’s pushing the NB-IoT standard that’s in use today. But NB-IoT is still expensive compared with LoRaWAN and Amazon’s proposed network, which is why there is such an opportunity for LPWANs.
Last year was exciting because both Amazon and LoRaWAN providers such as Helium and Senet figured out how to change the economics of setting up an IoT network. In Helium’s case, it incentivized people to set up nodes on its network by rewarding network participants with a cryptocurrency for providing coverage. In 2021, its nodes grew from 14,800 at the beginning of the year to more than 450,000 by the end. Meanwhile Senet, a large LoRaWAN network provider, did several things to expand its networks. Most notably, it offered free roaming to its private network clients if they let other people roam on them as well, and it signed a partnership with Helium to let customers roam on that company’s network.
Sidewalk is based on nodes that run inside Amazon’s Echo and Ring devices; the company turned the network on last June. There were bumps, and it’s still unclear how many Amazon device owners remain part of the Sidewalk network, but I have no doubt that the existing base of devices and general inertia means Amazon has decent coverage in some areas.
Amazon’s Sidewalk network relies on LoRa and Bluetooth radios running the Sidewalk protocol. Those radios are built into devices — among them Amazon’s fourth-generation Echo as well as some Ring products — which then act as a bridge to home Wi-Fi networks. When a Sidewalk device sends information to an Echo, the Echo uses the home Wi-Fi network to send the data over to the internet. Amazon says its Sidewalk network will never use more than 500 MB of broadband data a month.
By “borrowing” people’s Wi-Fi networks and creating small nodes that are densely packed in cities and suburban areas, Helium and Amazon solved the cost conundrum associated with LPWANs. And through its partnership with Helium, so has Senet. Amazon says its Sidewalk network will be free for developers, but that any data will end up in its cloud. For now, there’s no way to use Sidewalk and point your data to another cloud.
These networks are cheap, but coverage has been an issue. At CES, Amazon said it would release a professional bridge that has a 5-kilometer (3.2-mile) range and that it would partner with network operators and institutions to set up the professional bridges to expand the network. The pro bridges have Wi-Fi and cellular, which gives Amazon much better coverage in rural areas and offers it a way to partner with other companies to put bridges in places where homes (and Echo devices) are scarce. For Amazon, this both broadens the appeal of the Sidewalk network and its utility for the company’s own logistics operation.
Not to be outdone, this week Senet announced a partnership with three satellite companies to build a cohesive LoRaWAN-to-satellite option for customers that need coverage outside of LoRaWAN network boundaries. The companies involved have formed the Multimodal IoT Infrastructure Consortium (MMIIC) to test and certify products that will work across their networks. This is great for tracking assets and offering connectivity in areas that don’t have LoRaWAN coverage. Senet plans to have coverage from satellites in certain areas by the second half of this year.
With cost and coverage taken care of, the next big challenge for any new network is finding customers and convincing those customers to build on those networks. So which network should a developer choose?
I spoke with Scott Waller, co-founder and president of Thingy, which operates LoRaWAN networks and is a Sidewalk partner, to get a feel for the options. Waller told me that anyone running Sidewalk devices currently won’t be able to manage them or see them on a traditional LoRaWAN network, which is why developers will have to choose which they want to use. Doing a software update to offer multiple SKUs will also be an option. The underlying radios won’t need to change, but the firmware will.
Waller told me he was cautious when it comes to discussing Helium’s network because he doesn’t trust anything that is operated by a third party as it means Helium has no real control over it. He’d rather use Senet’s network or build his own. As for Sidewalk, he said he values the security built into the protocol and is OK with the cost tradeoffs (connectivity for free, but forced to send data through AWS). Though if your operations are deep into Azure or another cloud, that tradeoff might be a bigger deal for you.
Other developers have made different choices, in part because Amazon’s network isn’t generally available for developers yet. I asked if Sidewalk was generally available yet, and a spokesman emailed me, “We have third-party devices working on Sidewalk today and we’re working on delivering more with developers right now, so it is currently available.” But the Amazon website notes that Sidewalk is still only available in preview so developers must apply to use the service. And Amazon hasn’t provided a date for when Sidewalk might be generally available.
When I spoke to the two founders of Barnacle, an asset-tracking startup, they told me Helium worked best for them because of the cost and coverage, and because Amazon’s Sidewalk network was beset by so much negative publicity (it also wasn’t available yet). Another company, Mimiq, is launching a personal security siren and a tracking device on the Helium network, in part because it is available. Mimiq also makes a Helium miner, so it’s creating products to use the network it’s trying to help build.
This year, I expect we’ll see more products using LPWANs as larger, public networks are built. For now, most LoRaWAN devices are enterprise or industrial and designed for privately run LoRaWAN networks. But I think the time is coming for more options, especially for consumers and those who might want some kind of tracking without a cellular subscription or security sensors, which won’t fail if the internet goes out locally.
Update: This story was updated Jan. 18 to fix a typo. Sidewalk runs over LoRa and Bluetooth.