SAN JOSE, Calif. — Semtech hopes to arrive at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona with one or more new carriers joining its LoRa Alliance working on a 900 MHz wide-area network for the Internet of Things. It is one of a handful or players trying to establish the band for metro and national IoT services.
Rival Sigfox is raising capital to build out a 900 MHz network in the U.S. using its approach. The Weightless SIG is trying to rally supporters for an open standard. And backers of the 802.11ah standard see the giant WiFi ecosystem playing a significant role.
All aim to offer alternatives to a jungle of proprietary technologies. The leading standards are not optimal for IoT: Cellular networks are widespread but expensive, and Bluetooth is cheap but limited in range.
“The market has been very fragmented with separate networks for every application -- metering, parking, street lighting -- all running different protocols,” said Hardy Schmidbauer, director of Semtech’s LoRa initiative. “That makes it hard to scale because you have to support each company separately using different chips,” Schmidbauer said.
Seeing an opening three years ago, Semtech acquired startup Cycleo for its low cost commercial implementation of spread spectrum networks used by the military. This year the technology rebranded as LoRa is expected to outsell Semtech’s traditional 900 MHz chips based on frequency shift keying (FSK).
The 20 Kbit/second LoRa can stretch up to 30 miles with unobstructed line of sight. A recent trial in New York City extended links a mile with in-building penetration. Using FSK, the approach can deliver data rates up to 100 Kbits/s.
Battery life varies greatly depending on the application and battery size. But Schmidbauer said some apps are geared to last 20 years in the field, ten times longer than a cellular link.
LoRa’s reach and its embedded error correction are two of a handful of its differentiators, Schmidbauer said. In addition, users can add network capacity by adding LoRa gateways and the technology supports mobile end nodes, making it suitable for asset tracking.
Before the end of the year, Semtech will roll out an update of the spec to provide location data. In preliminary tests, the network can use time-of-flight information to locate a node within 10-50 meters.
Semtech officially announced its LoRa alliance earlier this month at CES with a handful of generally small carriers -- Bouygues Telecom (France), KPN (the Netherlands), SingTel (Singapore), Proximus (Belgium), Swisscom, and FastNet (South Africa). Other backers include Cisco, IBM and Microchip, which is a second source for modules. Other chip suppliers are expected to join.
Qualcomm, one of the world’s largest suppliers of cellular and WiFi chips, has yet to chime in on the buzz around 900 MHz nets. China’s Huawei is also expected to have a vice, following its purchase last year of Cambridge, U.K., startup Neul, which was driving a 700 MHz initiative until it became clear regulatory road blocks were too high.
These two dark horses are likely to be the biggest competitors in the space, said Schmidbauer, discounting rivals using the 802.11ah standard.
“WiFi is a different segment entirely,” he said. “It won’t be in the same order of magnitude in battery life and range, so it will have to be aimed at a different set of apps,” he said.
— Rick Merritt, Silicon Valley Bureau Chief, EE Times