Brace of LPWAN hardware pushes new limits on low-power

A trio of announcements have shaken the LPWAN industry this week, as it races towards new lows in power consumption capabilities. It comes after a handful of outlets began decrying the departure of Sigfox staff from the startup, after the culmination of an apparent power struggle between founders – although it’s very much worth emphasizing that there’s a case to be made for Sigfox being one of the better performers in the LPWAN market.

Light Reading ran with the headline ‘Sigfox in Peril as Senior Execs Exit,’ and didn’t reveal its sources for the angle. Staff depart startups pretty routinely, and power struggles are also pretty commonplace in nascent companies. Growing to some $32m in revenue for 2016 from the $12m it generated in 2015, the target for Sigfox through 2017 and into 2018 will be to generate enough revenue to reward its investors – who have collectively invested around $320m.

So while the tone was quite alarmist, we would counter the article by noting that tales of successful LPWAN network operators have been pretty hard to come by across the board. In an industry full of startups and hidden sales figures, getting concrete data is a rarity. From what we can tell, Senet and Actility are perhaps the best examples for LoRa – both of who pivoted to the LPWAN tech from gas tank monitoring and parking occupancy sensors.

Elsewhere in the LoRa camp, Semtech will be enjoying sales of its LoRa silicon, and a number of MNO deployments might grow to scale over time (despite not much evidence of their apparent enthusiasm for the low-cost connectivity that would cut into their 3GPP margins).

Sigfox has outlasted Weightless and Ingenu, both of which have effectively conceded defeat, and as it stands, it seems to be Sigfox against LoRa in the wider market – with the LoRa market divided between different deployments covering campuses, countries, or continents, and not a single global network like the Sigfox approach.

Still, it’s a market that inspires a lot of passion, which is good to see. But it’s early days to start calling a leading LPWAN vendor “in peril.” Collectively, the entire unlicensed LPWAN market faces the danger of playing a very distant second-fiddle to the GSMA ecosystem, especially when considered in terms of ARPU. Of course, Riot would urge you to study our forecast on the topic, for a better understanding of the market, but for now, it’s a market that doesn’t show any sign of slowing down.

The first of the past week’s announcements came from Semtech, the owner of LoRa, which announced what it says is the first disposable LoRa-enabled nano-tag. The reference design is aimed at applications that require long-range connectivity, and uses an ‘ultra-thin printed battery’ that should enable it to be easily integrated into packaging designs, or simply affixed to an object.

The target industries include logistics, shipping, healthcare, pharmaceutical, and asset tracking, as well as general-purpose compliance. Semtech says it will be available in 2018, and is undergoing trials with LoRa Alliance members. It can be built using both flexible tape and paper substrates.

The first pilot partner is machineQ, US cable provider Comcast’s IoT division, which is currently building out coverage in the US – starting with its HQ in Philadelphia, and being constructed by Actility according to what we have discerned. Notably, Comcast is not currently using its massive reach through in-home consumer premises equipment (CPE) to roll out a quick and dirty LoRa footprint, but is sticking with the tried-and-trusted tower model.

There are no tech-specs available currently, regarding range or battery-life, but we would expect the printed electronics form factor to allow for some variation here. Semtech confirmed that those details aren’t public yet, but we would expect the nano-tag’s shelf-life to be very dependent on the number of messages you need it to send. If you can tolerate a self-wake event-trigger mechanism, you will get a lot longer uptime from the system than if your deployment requires hourly check-ins.

Of note is an earlier announcement of a new battery design, in partnership with Imprint Energy. The ‘ultra-thin flexible printed batteries’ are small enough to be housed inside packaging designs, but again, details are not public. There are, at least, photos of the battery, which can apparently be manufactured using conventional paper printing processes – much like ThinFilm’s SpeedTap NFC tags, which cost around $0.20c for a single ID version, or $0.30-0.50c for a dual-ID variant, when made in its roll-to-roll facilities (a former Qualcomm fab, in Silicon Valley).

“As we continue to work with customers across a wide range of use cases, the innovative service made possible by coupling Semtech’s new nano-tag on machineQ’s dense IoT network opens a whole new set of use cases, across multiple industries, that were not commercially or technically viable using existing technologies,” said Alex Khorram, General Manager of machineQ.

Over in the Sigfox ecosystem, Fujitsu announced what it calls the world’s smallest LPWAN sensor device, boasting a several-kilometer range in a form factor measuring 82mm x 24mm x 6mm. The design is an evolution of Fujitsu’s solar-powered Bluetooth beacons, which has been modified to support Sigfox – able to send temperature readings over a range of 7km.

The breakthrough, according to the designer, came from a new technology that allows Fujitsu to better accommodate changing temperatures and their impact on power efficiency (for both generation and consumption). Fujitsu says this let it half the energy storage elements in the design, leading to the tiny design – but adds that the LPWAN message sending can require significantly more power than BLE (up to 1500x, apparently).

Fujitsu is positioning its K5 IoT PaaS as the ideal destination for the data generated by these sensors, which already has Sigfox Ready Program certification, after the readings have been transported over the local Sigfox Network Operator’s (SNO) infrastructure. In Fujitsu’s domestic market, that SNO would be Kyocera – a ceramics and electronics manufacturer.

The third low-power announcement came from a company with a familiar name, Riot Micro, which has announced an NB-IoT and LTE-M baseband chip that it says draws less than 20 milliamps. Emerging from stealth mode, Riot Micro says the RM1000 will be cheap enough to achieve the much-vaunted $5 module target that the GSMA ecosystem is aiming for.

Speaking to EE Times, CEO Peter Wong explained that the chip supports either NB-IoT or LTE-M, and not simultaneous transmission. Instead of using software to run the baseband functions, Wong says the RM1000 has used hardware-based Fourier transforms and filters in its PHY block, and stripped down the LTE software stack to its bare essentials.

Consequently, the RM1000 claims to support the two low-power protocols using just a 26-MHz ARM Cortex-M0 processor, and a tiny amount of SRAM – a fraction of the resources required by rival designs, according to Wong. The claimed power consumption for the baseband of 20 milliamps is drawn from a 3.7V battery, when sending 23dBm transmissions.

However, when added to a complete chipset, the relative savings are not so apparent, thanks to all those other components. However, Wong believes that the improvements will bring the cost of NB-IoT and LTE-M close to that of Bluetooth. A notable drawback of the hardware-based approach is that Riot can’t just reprogram the firmware should something go wrong, as those mistakes would be baked into the silicon itself.