LoRaWAN across the globe: LoRa Internet of Things networks overview

IoT deployments need connectivity and data communication solutions, that much is clear. What type of connectivity solution fits best for which application depends on the nature and context of the application and a long list of possible considerations.

The technologies can range from Bluetooth and Wi-Fi over 5G and industrial wireless to one of the many home automation standards or one of several so-called Low-Powered Wide Area Network (LPWAN) technologies.

Among those several LPWAN technologies and systems to enable long range communications with little power, as is often the case with several applications of the Internet of Things, is LoRaWAN. The main competitors of LoRa(WAN) are Sigfox and Ingenu. An overview.

IoT LPWAN connectivity - LoRA and LoRaWAN

LoRa: from a leading LPWAN enabler in Europe to increasing presences across the globe

LoRaWAN and LoRa, short for Long Range, are already widely available in several European countries (nationwide, for specific applications and pilot projects and/or moving beyond local deployments). In other regions across the globe (from Asia-Pacific to Africa) LoRa is being increasingly used and in the US LoRaWAN seems to have a future as well.

2016 was a good year for LoRa and it won’t be any different in 2017 and 2018 (with among others Germany joining the pack, Comcast doing trials for potential deployment in the US and obviously the move towards more scalable IoT projects by organizations).

On June 30th, 2016, The Netherlands became the first country in the world to have a nationwide LoRa network for Internet of Things applications. In other countries, nationwide LoRa IoT coverage is foreseen for end 2016, 2017 and 2018 as you’ll read below.

So, here is what you need to know about LoRa and LoRaWAN in order to see if it suits the needs of your IoT plans.

What are LoRa and LoRaWAN? A definition and description

First things first: what is LoRa? And what is LoRaWAN?

The LoRaWan standard: long range, low power, low bandwidth

As mentioned in the introduction LoRaWAN is a so-called LPWAN technology for long range, low power and low bandwidth Internet of Things applications (like Sigfox and Ingenu).

The first LoRaWAN standard was announced in June 2015 and since then things have gone fast. That first “LoRaWan R1.0 Open Standard for the IoT” stipulates that LoRaWAN data rates range from 0.3 kbps to 50 kbps. In order to optimize the battery life of end-devices, network capacity and easy of deployment/scale, the LoRaWAN network server manages the data rate for each connected sensor via an algorithm, known as the ADR or Adaptive Data Rate algorithm.

Where does LoRa(WAN) fit in the IoT connectivity space?

LoRa is used by several telecomproviders. In a sense it’s a type of network such as, for instance, a 3G network, built for communications between several Internet of Things devices and with data gathering systems, whereby data transmissions typically need to happen now and then.

Other providers of LPWAN systems (and LoRaWAN competitors) include the previously mentioned Sigfox (another ultra-narrowband-based technology), which carries the name of the French company that came up with it and already has a strong presence in the US, and Ingenu. Wikipedia also classifies, among others, NB-IoT and LTE-MTC (LTE Advanced for Machine Type Communications) or LTE-M, which is among others used in the US by Verizon (LT A, LTE Category M1) and by AT&T (who announced a mobile LTE-M network pilot in San Francisco), in the LPWAN category.

With LoRa and LoRaWAN, the key players want to provide an offering for companies that are seeking to deploy Internet of Things applications fast in areas where large distances are involved, yet low capacity is needed, for instance in a smart city or a logistics digital transformation project (more use cases below). In other words: it’s not what you will use in, for instance a context of connected cars where more network capacity is needed or in the context of oil and gas IoT applications, to name a few.

Because of the low frequency and the specifications of LoRa as we mentioned them before, it is also low power which makes it suitable for connected devices with small batteries.

The place of LPWAN - and LoRa - in the IoT wireless connectivity ecosystem according to the LoRa alliance
The place of LPWAN – and LoRa – in the IoT wireless connectivity ecosystem according to the LoRa alliance (PDF opens)

Which kinds of IoT applications does LoRa(WAN) enable?

Examples of applications where it can be used include smart parking and all sorts of other smart city applications (e.g. traffic, smart waste management, smart metering in general), applications to control connected devices at home from a longer distance, localization, logistic applications, farming, smart meters, security applications, mining, the list goes on.

In other words: LoRa is suited for many of the Industrial Internet of Things applications at which business and governments are looking today and where it offers an alternative for less ubiquitous connectivity solutions (outside that is) such as Wi-Fi and more expensive types of connectivity, such as cellular connections.

The key characteristics (and benefits) of LoRa and LoRaWAN in a nutshell

We have touched upon several of the benefits and characteristics earlier but here they are in a nutshell:

  • Long range enables solutions such as smart city applications.
  • Low power means long battery life for devices.
  • Low bandwith makes it ideal for practical IoT deployments with less data and/or with data transmissions which aren’t constant as you can read in the Hamburg bridge and the lightning detection cases below (and also in, for instance, waste management where you just need to know whether a waste bin is full or not or in smart parking where you want to ‘know’ if a parking spot is free or not).
  • Low(er) connectivity costs.
  • Wireless, easy to set up and fast deployment.
  • Security: a layer of security for the network and one for the applicaton with AES encryption, not a luxury knowing the concerns and security risks regarding IoT.
  • Fully bi-directional communication.
  • Open: an open alliance and an open standard.

Cisco developed a LoRaWAN offering whereby LoRa, WiFi and cellular are brought together. Cisco’s LoRaWAN offering, a boost for LoRa, is primarily targeting on vertical industry use cases and applications such as asset tracking and management, logistics, utilities, smart cities, digital ceilings and agriculture as you can read on Cisco’s site.

In the PDF which describes Cisco’s solutons for LoRaWAN we, among others also see environment monitoring, leak detections and street lighting as the image from the brochure (PDF opens) below indicates.

Internet of Things use cases for LoRaWAN - source Cisco Solution for LoRaWAN brochure - PDF opens
Internet of Things use cases for LoRaWAN – source Cisco Solution for LoRaWAN brochure – PDF opens

Is LoRa a good fit for the connected home?

With its focus on the long range LoRa is not ideal for many indoor smart home applications. However, it does get used and you can certainly use it for some smart home applications with an element of distance.

Think about an application to open a garage door or to turn devices on and off while being further away. For smart home applications where distance is less of an issue we typically use Wifi, Bluetooth or short distance solutions which are designed for home automation such as Z-Wave or ZigBee.

What is the difference between LoRa and LoRaWAN?

We often use both terms interchangeably but there is a difference. Without getting too technical, it has to do with network and telecommunications layers. If you remember the good old – very old – OSI or Open System Interconnection Model, you also might remember that there are several layers in this conceptual model.

The first layer is the physical layer. LoRa, is the physical layer or the (wireless) modulization which creates the long range communication link. LoRaWAN is about the communication protocol and system architecture for the network as the LoRa Alliance puts it. Or even simpler: LoRaWAN is the network (WAN = Wide Area Network).

LoRa and LoRaWAN across the globe in public IoT networks

Which countries have LoRaWAN coverage and who offers LoRa?

On June 30 2016 KPN had finalized the first nationwide LoRa network for Internet of Things in The Netherlands - image KPN press release
On June 30th 2016 KPN had finalized the first nationwide LoRa network for Internet of Things in The Netherlands – image KPN press release

Although LoRa is a cheaper alternative for cellular connectivity in practice it is offered by several telecom players who have a cellular offering (2G, 3G, 4G) and see it as an additional offering on top of cellular, Bluetooth and WiFi (each with their typical use cases).

The state of LoRaWan in Europe

Among these telecom firms (and the countries they cover) are:

  • KPN (The Netherlands), which announced the previously mentioned nationwide LoRa network in The Netherlands end June,
  • Proximus (Belgium), the incumbent operator which was known as Belgacom previously and promises nationwide LoRaWAN coverage in the country by end 2016,
  • Orange (France), which started with 18 urban areas in the first quarter of 2016 and is expected to offer nationwide coverage soon as well,
  • Bouygues Telecom (France), also promising nationwide LoRa coverage by end 2016 and offering IoT services with its subsidiary company Objenious.
  • Unidata, an Italian telecom company, which announced the roll out of a LoRaWan network on June 14th. Initially this will be done in Rome with the promise of a full coverage of the city by 2017.
  • Netzikon, not a telecom firm but the name of a LoRaWan network which is present already in Stuttgart and will be rolled out nationwide in Germany by 2018 according to an October 4 press release by LPWAN provider Actility.

The state of LoRa and LoRaWAN in other regions

In several other countries there are plans for nationwide deployment, local applications and/or trials.

LoRaWAN in the US

As mentioned, in the US Comcast is about to test LoRaWAN IoT networks in two markets as Sue Marek reported on SDX Central on October 7th.

Philadelphia and San Francisco have been selected for trials in IoT applications such as asset tracking, utility metering and environmental monitoring. If the trials are successful within the next 18-30 months another 28 ‘markets’ should follow.

However, there is already another actor present in the US too. Senet offers the first public Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) for Internet of Things applications, using LoRa(WAN) in North America with coverage in more than 100 US cities since June 2016. It plans to cover twice as many in 2017.

LoRaWAN in Oceania

On September 20th, Semtech (the company behind LoRa and LoRaWAN) said it is deploying a LoRaWAN -based network in New Zealand, promising that half the population should be covered in a ‘matter of months’.

From Zealand we go to Australia where also in September the launch of one of the first IoT networks in the country was announced, more specifically in Sidney, as ZDNet reports.

This list of announcements and the dates they were made clearly show that the interest for LoRa and the Internet of Things is growing fast and that LoRaWan initiatives are being deployed fast.

Focus on Asia-Pacific

As Europe already has several LoRaWan offerings and projects and with the US trials ahead, a key focus is of course the Asia-Pacific region as is the case for all IoT providers.

On top of Australia and New Zealand (part of the APAC region), several initiatives are being deployed in Asia and Semtech and others are regularly present at events in the region.

On September 14th, Telecom Asia covered the plans of Japanese operator SoftBank to deploy a LPWAN network using the LoRaWAN protocol in its current fiscal year.

In India, Tata Communications already announced end 2015 that it would deploy a LoRaWAN network which had been trialled in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore.

And on July 12th, Semtech released a statement saying that the nationwide deployment of a LoRaWAN IoT network in South Korea by local telecom provider SK Telecom covered 99 percent of the population.

More projects

This overview is far from exhaustive. A few more examples:

ElectronicsWeekly.com posted an overview of several European initiatives, including a smart city project with LoRa in Gothenburg (Sweden).

In 2015, BizTech Africa mentioned that provider FastNet’s LoRaWan network already covered more than 40 percent of South Africa.

LoRaWAN in private networks and vertical solutions

Whereas the LoRa Alliance and the approach of its founder, Semtech, has seduced several telecom firms, operators aren’t the only partners of the alliance.

LoRaWAN mesh network for livestock monitoring and management - via Network World
LoRaWAN mesh network for livestock monitoring and management – via Network World

LoRaWAN networks are also being used by developers, integrators and a range of other companies, including startups which have a very vertical solution. This strategy differentiates the LoRa Alliance from one of its main competitors, Sigfox, which has opted to work with network operators and keep ownership of most of its technology (except the endpoints).

The goal of Sigfox is to become the world’s largest IoT network by working with an operator per country. While the LoRa Alliance obviously also seeks (and has found) partners for nationwide LPWA networks as you could see in the list above, its more open nature allows more options.

Whereas Sigfox goes for public networks, LoRa also enables to deploy a private network which is often needed in IoT applications.

This is a business advantage as, when it boils down to working with operators, the risk is there that ultimately they start working with technologies which are designed for them (and their own networks). And there is a lot going on in these cellular IoT environments.

You can really find LoRaWAN in virtual all areas and regions, also where there is no public network.

If you look at the various companies in the LoRa ecosystem, you’ll see that there are applications everywhere, on top of the many nationwide LoRaWAN deployment plans. One of them, LORIOT.io, for instance, which developed a LoRaWan cloud, is present in over 70 countries, including Rusia, China, a large part of South America and several African countries.

An example of a company that has built a solution for the Internet of Things, using LoRaWAN, is Cattle Trax. This US start-up offers an IoT livestock monitoring solution using sensors, built-in IDs and tranceivers whereby a LoRaWAN network architecture is used as Network World reports and visually describes.

The LoRa Alliance

All the telecom operators and the various partners in the LoRa ecosystem, including LORIOT.io and obviously Semtech, are gathered in The LoRa Alliance.

The LoRa Alliance “has a mission to standardize Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWAN) being deployed around the world to enable Internet of Things (IoT), machine-to-machine (M2M), and smart city, and industrial applications”. And this standard obviously is LoRa. As the mission statement continues “the alliance members will collaborate to drive the global success of the LoRa protocol (LoRaWAN), by sharing knowledge and experience to guarantee interoperability between operators in one open global standard”.

You can check out an overview of all members (and their sites where you’ll find plenty more IoT use cases using LoRa and of course a bunch of additional info on LoRa and LoRaWAN).

The site of the LoRa Alliance also has information for developers and a library of resources. Finally, you can also read about the technology and the previously mentioned LoRaWAN standard which was released in June 2015.

LoRaWAN - the technological picture - source press release LoRaWAN Open Standard
LoRaWAN – the technological picture – source press release LoRaWAN Open Standard

Is LoRa(WAN) better than its competitors?

Are LoRa and LoRaWAN better than other technologies (NB-IoT, Sigfox, etc.)? The future will tell and we will cover the other technologies too of course.

The benefits of a more open approach

It’s clear that LoRa is de facto dominant in a few (mainly European for now) markets in the public IoT network space.

LoRaWAN has the benefit of being an alliance with an Open approach instead of a proprietary one. There are also technological differences between the various solutions which we’ll cover more in depth in another article. However, the main question is and remains: what goals do you want to achieve with your Internet of Things project? And then comparing and understanding the various options is never a bad thing.

Moreover, the usage of LoRa will evolve and no technology is perfect. In an interview, Orange’s Luc Bretones, for instance, says that while the openness of LoRa is a benefit compared with the proprietary approach of Sigfox but, along with its reliance on unlicense spectrum this openness is also a problem. Orange plans to take LoRa’s strong points and integrate these in a future cellular standard, Iain Morris, who conducted the interview, wrote on LightReading.

There is never a one-size-fits-all solution

Of course there are other factors that play a role in such decisions and not everyone in the LoRa Alliance has the same views or approach. Remember how Cisco built its offering, for instance.

In the end it’s very simple: it’s rarely about ‘this’ versus ‘that’ technology. In most cases it’s about ‘which mix of technologies will make me reach my IoT projects goals?’.

Just like in any area of business and technology there is rarely a one-size-fits-all solution, except in rudimentary IoT projects.

In an age of hybrid ‘anything’ (just look at the cloud) it would be wrong to think that one IoT technology, whether it concerns connectivity or anything else, is THE ultimate solution for all needs.

The challenge of NB-IoT

The LoRaWAN offering of Cisco again is proof of this as is the fact that some providers of vertical IoT solution platforms support LoRa but also others such as NB-IoT (a narrow-band radio technology designed for the Internet of Things). Of course that is their business duty.

An example: LoRa Alliance member Flashnet has a LoRa and LoRaWAN street lightning solution, called intelliLIGHT as the image below shows. In fact, it was the first LoRa street lighting control solution globally.

inteliLIGHT-LoRa Street Lighting Control Solution by Flashnet - source and bigger picture.gif
inteliLIGHT-LoRa Street Lighting Control Solution by Flashnet – source and bigger picture

However, intelliLIGHT’s street lighting control solution won’t just be available using the LoRaWAN LPWA approach.

Soon it will also be available for NB-IoT too. Deutsche Telekom has asked Flashnet to develop the first NB-IoT compatible streetlight control solution. As you can read here the functional controllers are expected to be ready end 2016. And, of course the image below is very similar to the LoRaWAN image above.

Vodafone is pushing very hard for the NB-IoT standard. Yet, it’s not very likely that the done investments in public LoRA networks which telcos have made will be replaced just like that; or at least not for now – and, again, it’s not a ‘this or that’ question.

NB-IoT communications for street lighting solutions - source
NB-IoT communications for street lighting solutions – source

Obviously customers who opt for LoRaWAN to develop IoT projects or even solutions don’t need to worry at all.

Even if one day NB-IoT or whatever cellular IoT approach would make all telecom providers change their strategies, the fact that the LoRa Alliance has this more open approach and also enables private IoT deployments and solutions such as Cattle Trax and others is key.

In case you need a full technical overview of LoRa and LoRaWAN: click here to open the PDF.

Internet of Things examples: LoRa(WAN) IoT applications

You could already discover an Internet of Things application in the context of livestock Internet of Things use cases and lighting previously. Obviously there are many more, here are a few.

In a June 2016 blog post Cisco’s Tony Shakib announced several new Internet of Things solutions, including for the Cisco solution for LoRaWAN offering.

One of the companies which selected the solution as part of its digital transformation strategy is the Hamburg Port Authority. Sensors are installed along the entrance bridge to the port and LoRa enables precise and predicitive maintenance and repairs planning.

In the press release about the German Netzikon LoRaWAN network plans another existing IoT use case, using LoRaWAN, is mentioned: sensors detecting when lightning struck the turbine bladers of wind power generators. The data is communicated through the LoRaWAN network, leading to a faster resolve of potentional damage.

LPWAN forecasts 2017


Top image: Shutterstock – Copyright: wavebreakmedia – All other images are the property of their respective mentioned owners.