For most people and businesses, the internet of things is still limited to a home, building, or campus network. If you want your device to work outside of a pre-determined space, then you have to rely on cellular, with all of the costs it entails. And while it makes sense to give a car a 4G modem and perhaps to buy a data plan, it’s a much tougher sell to get people to buy an expensive device and pay a monthly fee for something like a mailbox sensor or a pet tracker.
That’s why Low-Power Wide-Area Networks, or LPWANs, are so integral for the internet of things. The cellular world is banking on a standard called NB-IoT, which consumes less battery power and shouldn’t cost as much as traditional cellular options, while companies such as Amazon are building their own low power wide area networks using existing radios and mesh technology. But thanks to recent updates, long-range (LoRa) is looking like the LPWAN to beat.
Semtech, the company that makes LoRa chips, this week announced a deal with Helium, a company that is using a distributed ledger and shared hotspots to create a homegrown mesh network for the internet of things. The deal will turn the existing 3,000-plus Helium hotspots that are in use around the U.S. into points on a nationwide LoRa network.
Doing so will mean more coverage right out of the gate. It will also turn anyone who can plug in a box and enter a Wi-Fi password into a functioning node in an ever-expanding LoRa network. Helium offers tokens in the Helium cryptocurrency to its hotspot hosts and also uses the distributed ledger technology as a way to authenticate hotspots onto the network.
The deal with Helium is huge for LoRa, but it’s not the only reason the network technology has suddenly become compelling. Last week, Semtech said it will offer LoRa modules that link back to a new cloud service designed to provide location data for any LoRa chip. Because LoRa is a technology that can’t send a ton of data, and because it is designed to save power, it can’t offer GPS or WiFi-based location services on its own.
Historically, that meant if someone wanted real-time asset tracking or even occasional asset tracking, they had to use NB-IoT or traditional cellular. With the new LoRa Edge cloud service, a LoRa radio will track limited data such as nearby Wi-Fi networks and GPS satellite data, then send that info to the cloud to get a precise location. Doing the location calculations in the cloud will save battery power and reduce the amount of processing power needed on the LoRa chip.
The result will be a lower-cost, battery-powered asset tracking solution. Combine that with an easy-to-deploy network and you give companies a wide variety of new services. For example, a retailer could track inventory at its stores by shipping each branch a Helium router, asking them to plug it in, and then tagging items with a LoRaEdge-based chip.
It will almost be as easy as buying an NB-IoT device and relying on cellular, but the LoRa option should be cheaper. Thus, with the location-tracking service and an easy-to-deploy network, Semtech should help drive LoRa adoption to the mainstream and offer alternatives to more traditional LoRa network providers such as Senet, MachineQ, and others.