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LPWA Use Cases Are as Gritty as They Come

Stephen Lawson
News Analysis
Stephen Lawson
12/22/2017
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Low-power, wide area networks (LPWANs) are like gigabit 5G and futuristic smartphones for the accountants of the world. Early applications aren't the sexiest of wireless use cases, but if cutting waste-management costs by more than 80% or automatically detecting a leak in a water main get you going, LPWANs are for you.

The recent LPWA Americas conference in San Jose, Calif., featured deep discussions of network technologies and rollouts, but also some details on real-world uses of this new type of infrastructure. Most of them were about saving money, though varietal wines came into the mix, too.

A typical example is what Seoul-based startup eCube Labs is doing with trash collection in Goyang, a large city in South Korea. Goyang is one of the showcase cities for eCube's integrated waste management system, which starts with sensors added to bins and can grow to include collection fleet management.

Ultrasonic sensors in public waste bins periodically detect how full the bins are and report to eCube's software platform. This can trigger an alert for a pickup, but with additional history and analytics, the software can eventually predict when a given bin will fill up and even design more efficient routes for garbage trucks.

The idea is that it's a waste -- of waste management resources -- to empty garbage bins on a set schedule if some of them are only 20% full, said Michael Son, eCube's chief financial officer.

The full solution can save municipalities more than 80% of their waste-management operational costs, he said. LPWANs help to make this possible by lowering the cost, size and battery requirements of the smallest connected bin sensors, compared with using LTE. In Goyang, eCube retrofitted its sensors to use a citywide NB-IoT network deployed by the local carrier. But the company is also looking at other LPWANs, including LoRaWAN and LTE-M, for cities in other regions. NB-IoT works well, but as a new technology, it's had a few glitches, including occasional problems handing off data connections on trucks, Son said.

Others at the show played up equally bottom-line applications for LPWANs.

  • Senet , a LoRa operator building a national footprint in the US, is helping oil companies know when to empty tanks at remote locations by sensing when they're almost full.

  • Consultant Kurt Kelley of Excelerated Technology Consulting helped develop a system that uses pressure sensors retrofitted to home water meters. The sensors report the local water pressure over a wireless network so the water company can precisely locate any drop in water pressure, which could indicate a leak in a water main.

  • Trash cans are a winner for French LPWAN company Sigfox , too. An amusement-park operator had the cans in its parks equipped with fullness sensors to make sure they wouldn't overflow. That led the client to look at connecting its soda dispensers and putting soil humidity sensors in its lawns, said Ramzi Al-Harayeri, director of sales and business development at Sigfox.

LPWANs do show a touch of glamour at Delicato Family Vineyards, a large California wine producer, which uses LoRa and related technologies as part of a network of weather stations, soil sensors and irrigation flow meters in its vineyards. The data used to be collected by walking through the fields and manually taking notes, said Gregory Brun, senior viticulturist at Delicato.

The wireless sensors, which talk to gateways that in turn use the Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) cellular network for backhaul, are inexpensive enough to spread throughout the vineyards, Brun said. This is important because each variety of grapes needs different conditions to thrive. Delicato's next step will be to bring all the equipment up to the latest LoRa standard, leading to consistency, lower costs and more sensors, Brun said.

AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) wants to make it easier to develop and implement new use cases for its LTE-M network through its "LTE-M button," introduced last week at the AWS re:Invent conference. It works like Amazon's Dash Button for ordering products, only users don't have to connect it with a WiFi network. The $34.99 price of the button will include coverage for three years or 1,500 clicks, and the device will automatically connect to the network.

The button is specifically for businesses and can be used to order goods or services. AT&T Director of IoT Solutions David Allen said one good use for it might be -- you guessed it -- ordering garbage pickup with one click when a dumpster fills up. The LTE-M button could be right on site: No more remembering to push a WiFi button after you get back to the office.

Dollars and cents, not gee-whiz features, are what make LPWANs attractive.

To make LPWAN deployments work, it's important not to get caught up in "science projects," said Mick Welch, senior director of customer technical services at IoT software company Sixgill. "The biggest challenge is that you have to sit down and be diligent and think about building your business model," Welch said.

"The easy stuff is the networks, the modules," mobile consultant Steve Brumer of 151 Advisors said. The harder question is what the technology is for. "We need to figure out what the problem is and solve that."

And sometimes, the problem is rather basic.

"The first thing people want to know is, 'Where's my stuff?' " said Daniel Herb, director of IoT for T-Mobile USA. Alarms and asset tracking have been two of the most popular applications for the carrier's NB-IoT network.

— Stephen Lawson, special to Light Reading

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