This is the year of the Low-Power Wide-Area Network (LPWAN). And much like in home or even industrial networks, where multiple wireless protocols cozy up to one another, when it comes to blanketing large areas with low data-rate connectivity, users will have several options to choose from.
That’s why Unabiz is creating what it calls a unified LPWAN comprised of its acquired Sigfox assets, LoRaWAN technology, cellular technology, and even satellite connectivity (not all cellular or satellite technologies are LPWANs). Customers around the world can go to Unabiz and get an array of options to build out a city-wide, country-wide, or even a global network. And this week, thanks to a deal with Senet, customers in the U.S. will also have this option.
Senet, which has a number of LoRaWAN networks in the U.S., has signed a partnership agreement with Unabiz that gives Senet customers access to Unabiz’s devices and networks when those devices are located in other countries. Bruce Chatterly, the CEO of Senet, said that the plan is still to stick with LoRaWAN in the U.S. but if customers’ devices have the appropriate radios they could travel onto Sigfox or other networks when they’re elsewhere in the world.
Obviously the best use case for this is tracking, which has become an increasingly important line of business for LPWAN providers. Depending on whose data you use, the asset tracking market in 2022 was worth anywhere from $3.5 billion to $15.4 billion. What’s certain is that it is growing, largely because the cost of modules and connectivity are decreasing while supply chain disruptions have become a more costly business disruption.
So what does a unified LPWAN look like? Philippe Chiu, CEO of Unabiz, said via email that in the short term the company plans to combine protocols at the middleware level, through Unabiz’s UnaConnect software platform, which will let customers aggregate, manage, and decode data coming in from multiple networks. For example, The Things Industries announced at last month’s Mobile World Congress that it had signed a deal with Unabiz to bring its software platform into the UnaConnect platform. Senet’s network will be accessed the same way.
“Combining protocols at the hardware level is tedious, a long-term commitment (product development and industrialization) and expensive (components, batteries, etc.) and requires technology owners to come together,” Chiu told me via email in explaining the current middleware solution. But he did offer some hope for more integrated LPWAN modules over the long term. “The long-term integration will soon be announced,” he wrote, “so do watch this space.”
In the meantime, Unabiz customers are building hybrid networks that combine cellular (LTE-M) and Sigfox or LoRaWAN and satellite to get coverage in all of the nooks and crannies of a deployment. “Cellular and satellite networks should be considered as value-added complements in our offer,” said Chiu. “The integration of satellite networks and LPWAN is highly sought after as it addresses the challenges of tracking and location in areas poorly covered by LPWAN or cellular networks — while cellular networks are appropriate when notions of [real-time data rates] are at stake.”
Unabiz, which is based in Singapore, has networks across the globe, with the exception of the U.S. This is where Senet can help. CEO Chatterly said that Unabiz customers can use Senet’s network in the U.S. as needed.
Chatterly also gave me an update on the partnership it has with Helium. After users discovered that Helium’s decentralized network paid out higher rates to founders and the earliest users (I was one) without being transparent about the earnings potential of later adopters, a lot of people dropped their hotspots.
But Chatterly said the network is still running and that it provides coverage for about 85,000 Senet devices. He said Senet uses the network to provide coverage for areas where its own network doesn’t reach, and also that it acts as a “canary for future growth.” By seeing where new devices pop up on the Helium network, Chatterly can see where demand is growing and provide Senet gear for those customers.
This is good for Senet, but probably less good for Helium hotspot providers who’d rather see the devices stay on the network and continue to pay into earnings. In addition to Helium, Senet has a partnership with satellite operator Eutelsat that provides wider area coverage as well as backhaul for gateways in remote areas.
Senet is also eyeing cellular, much like Unabiz has. Adding cellular should get easier since LoRa chip designer Semtech has acquired the cellular module business of Sierra Wireless. But while doing so makes sense in an era of unified LPWANs where LoRa will be combined with cellular and other options, it also poses a potential risk. As Chatterly said, “I’m hoping they’re not going to become a competitor to their own ecosystem.”
So the question to ask isn’t why build a unified LPWAN product, but rather, who should build a unified LPWAN product.