Thin expertise in big, fragmented markets
SAN JOSE, Calif. – Six months into leading a new Internet of Things initiative for Comcast, Alex Khorram is trying to get his arms around an opportunity he is convinced will be huge. Like others attacking IoT, the general manager of the MachineQ service finds the market complex and diverse.
Comcast announced in October it will use the LoRa unlicensed narrowband network to address a dozen broad business opportunities from asset tracking and smart parking to waste management. So far it has a network up in Philadelphia where it has tens of field trials with small and large customers and plans to deploy nets in Chicago and San Francisco later this year.
Khorram found many companies are interested in IoT but few have the breadth of technical expertise to easily deploy a large project. “You can get to a prototype quickly, but it’s tough to find hardware, network and software engineering resources all in the same company,” he said.
“The top of the funnel is huge where people are interested in creating proof-of-concepts, but [the trouble is in] getting to the next 10,000 [units]—the industry is working on foundry or OEM partnerships, [but deployments] are very individualized,” he said.
While systems integrators may play a role filling the gaps, new business models are still opening up for companies that enable IoT. Thus Khorram is still investigating what roles Comcast will play with its MachineQ service.
“We don’t know the answer just yet…even a year from now I may not have the answer — it’s a bit of all the above. First we provide the connectivity and then help people on the device and app sides flourish and see what that means for our business,” he said.
For now, Comcast provides Lora gateways from multiple unnamed vendors to link to its backbone network. It lets its customers buy their own end-node hardware from chip and module makers.
Unlike its much smaller rival Senet, Comcast does not aim to create a national LoRa network. Instead it will focus on regional and metro use cases where it has an existing footprint that covers about half the U.S. population.
“Opportunity is not restricted if you have a regional play. One smart city often has nothing to do with the city next door even if you have coverage there,” Khorram said.
Some of the initial use cases that look promising include infrastructure metering, asset tracking and monitoring temperature for products required to stay cold. Long term, Comcast even has hopes of serving IoT in agriculture.
Next page: The status and outlook for LoRa
The status and outlook for LoRa
Yellow areas have publicly announced LoRa deployments. (Image: LoRa Alliance)
Comcast is one of the largest of about 30 service providers that have joined the LoRa Alliance including Orange, SK Telecom and Softbank. The group is approaching 500 members, about four dozen certified products and a board that now includes Khorram of Comcast along with representatives of Cisco, IBM and ZTE.
“The ecosystem is big…I think the alliance has reached critical mass,” Khorram said.
Comcast kicked the tires of the technology in its own field tests before jumping in. “We were very happy with propagation in rural, suburban and urban settings at 12-20 Kbits/s for up or down links, and in harsh environments it performed as expected,” he said.
The alliance’s meeting in Philly last week was timed to coincide with the annual conference for water utilities and their vendors where Khorram spoke. LoRa needs to make a bigger splash with such big vertical markets, he said.
At the technical level, the group continues to hammer out a way to offer geolocation services without GPS. It’s also working on lifecycle management issues such as techniques for firmware updates. So far, technical road maps and evolving business needs seem well aligned, he added.
Khorram joined Comcast about four years ago after working at private equity firms and a variety of telecom and Web startups. As early as 2007 he was investigating startups in smart parking in San Francisco and vehicle tracking in Toronto.
“One of the key observations that intrigued me was connections for things rather than people used existing [cellular] networks, but the business models weren’t prepared to address them because it was all about data plans. We saw the cost was overkill and you didn’t need all the bandwidth, so I started working on a thesis that narrowband would have contrarian value,” he said.
Now that pre-IoT concept has a name with a class of so-called LPWA (low power wide area) networks such as LoRa, Sigfox and Ingenu as well as up-and-coming cellular rivals. But just how it will play out remains to be seen.
— Rick Merritt, Silicon Valley Bureau Chief, EE Times