Man, the IoT networking news has been non-stop this week. First, on Monday, Amazon detailed plans for its Sidewalk network, which will use a proprietary Low-Power Wide-Area Network (LPWAN) built into its Ring and Echo devices to provide connectivity to other devices. Then Helium, which is building its own distributed IoT network, announced partnerships aimed at making it easier for consumers to buy their own routers and add gateways to the Helium network. And finally, Senet, a company that is building a LoRaWAN network, raised $16 million to grow its business.
Each of these companies have committed to supporting LoRa if not LoRaWAN devices on their network, but Senet is trying to stand out with its focus on building a carrier-grade network for the IoT. With all of the news around the topic, I chatted with Senet CEO Bruce Chatterley to find out what’s happening at the company and how it views the competition.
Senet has been building LoRaWAN networks since 2014 and currently has them deployed in more than 100 cities. The company was formed in 2009 to monitor fuel tanks as part of EnerTrac, but in 2017 it sold its fuel tank division to focus solely on providing IoT connectivity. Senet’s primary customers are utilities, perhaps owing to its past.
Chatterley says that water utilities have been hiring Senet to deploy LoRaWAN gateways to cover their service areas. Those customers then use Senet to help them find and deploy LoRaWAN devices to help with water metering. Chatterley says the company is currently deploying 28 gateways covering some 40,000 to 60,000 water meters in one city, and just signed a deal with a water utility to connect 225,000 meters in a single county.
One of the challenges facing any company trying to build a network is convincing customers that there is enough coverage and enough devices on the market that work on that network. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem that Senet has decided to tackle by offering three different service models. A business can have Senet build out and manage a private LoRaWAN network for business use, a municipality can build out a public LoRaWAN network for citizens and other city departments to use, or a company can have Senet build a network and then open that network up for other users and get paid a share of Senet’s revenue when other companies use the network.
With water utilities already signing up, Senet is turning to natural gas companies for its next big source of network expansion and revenue. The goal is to use the network to monitor natural gas lines and turn off the gas to homes if sensors detect a leak. Other potential growth areas include tracking food deliveries to ensure cold items stay cold and hot items get to their destination while still hot. While this tech may end up inside a pizza delivery box, Chatterley thinks higher-end restaurants stuck doing takeout during the pandemic, or perhaps restaurants that contract out to ghost kitchens, might value this service as well.
The funding will help Senet expand and market to those new industries, but it also stands to benefit from the greater visibility that LPWANs are getting thanks to Amazon announcing its Sidewalk Network this week. The Sidewalk Network is Amazon’s answer to connecting devices outside the home. Amazon will include Sidewalk radios and Eero routers in its Echo device and use them to create a mesh network. On Monday of this week, it announced that Tile would be the first outside customer of the Sidewalk Network.
Chatterley thinks there’s a role for networks like Amazon’s and Senet’s because they are fundamentally different. First, Amazon is using a proprietary LoRa as opposed to a standardized LoRaWAN technology. So devices on the Sidewalk network won’t necessarily be able to roam onto other LoRaWAN networks, such as the Helium or Senet networks. Second, Chatterley says Amazon’s network will be subject to disruptions from consumers unplugging their Sidewalk nodes or moving them around. He says Senet’s network is carrier-grade, and reliable for enterprise applications.
I’m less inclined to worry about Amazon or others delivering a best-effort network for consumer applications, especially as the software controlling the overall mesh network gets more robust and reactive. But I do worry about having a proprietary Amazon LPWAN that competes with others out there. I think for something as fundamental as a network, especially one where the value is really dependent on the devices on the network, companies should use open and standardized technology to boost innovation.