The internet of things has a Low-Power Wide-Area Network (LPWAN) problem. Most people probably look at the huge number wireless protocols and companies trying to send small bits of data wirelessly over long distances and think the problem is that there are too many of these companies. After all, there are telcos offering NB-IoT, proprietary efforts such as Sigfox and Ingenu, LoRa networks such as Helium and Senet, and satellite startups such as Astrocast.
But the real problem is economic. As we’ve talked about on the podcast and written about separately, it costs a lot of money to build a tower-based network designed to cover large areas and send inconsequential data. And by inconsequential, I mean that the data is small, but also that — individually — it’s not valuable. This is not data for which a regular consumer is going to pay cellular rates. Rather, it’s designed for products that will sell for just tens of dollars.
The economic challenge is also why we keep seeing new companies trying to get into this space, armed with new ideas for how to reduce the cost of connectivity. So far, Helium’s effort to build a LoRa network using a shared, distributed network is most compelling, although I’m hopeful that some carriers will be able to make NB-IoT work.
This week, I met with Totum Labs, an 18-month-old satellite company that plans to tackle the economic problem facing LPWANs with satellites and a low-cost, custom chip. Ted Myers, the co-founder and CEO of Totum, may be familiar to industry watchers as the former co-founder and chief technical officer at Ingenu, which was trying to build a tower-based LPWAN.
Myers says that, while Ingenu is still around, most of the founding team left once it became clear that it was too expensive to build the network in order to get companies to build devices to run on it. So he’s turning to low-cost nanosats to deliver broadband connections for low-powered devices around the world.
Totum is seeking funding to launch an eventual 25 satellites by 2022, building what will be a worldwide network that can transmit low data-rate messages with the unlicensed 2.4 GHz band used for Wi-Fi when on the ground. The chip that companies will use in their devices will cost $4, which is cheap enough to get it into consumer devices that sell for around $15-$20.
Each satellite can support half a million devices, so the idea is that within a year of the launches the company could support a fully global network for millions of devices as opposed to having to roll out a network geographic region by geographic region. Myers is especially excited because — thanks to the 2.4 GHz spectrum — the Totum technology will also work indoors. The satellite connection will communicate with a gateway that devices connect to. In the meantime, Totum has signed a partnership to have existing company Loft Orbital provide the gateways and ground network that Totum will use for backhaul.
Totum has plenty of competition in the sky. Traditional satellite companies are waking up to the opportunity for IoT, as are startups such as Myriota, Lacuna, and others. But Myers is no stranger to the world of connecting machines, and in March raised $10 million in Series A funding, which will pay for the first satellites to get off the ground.
After that, the business will depend on companies building in Totum’s modules so their devices can talk to the network.