LoRa nets Bouygues deployment, Flashnet street lighting

Low-power wide-area network (LPWAN) protocol LoRa has notched up a significant network win this week, as Bouygues telecom announced the deployment of a national French network. In addition, Flashnet, a European provider of utility services, has announced that it has integrated LoRa into its inteliLIGHT smart city platform.

French MNO and ISP Bouygues Telecom has picked LoRa for its own domestic IoT and M2M network offering. A founding member of the LoRa Alliance, the body that oversees LoRa itself, Bouygues says it will service 500 towns and cities by the end of the year. The Alliance has also just distributed the finalized version 1.0 of the LoRaWAN gateway protocol to its members.

LoRa is the brand name for a chip-level implementation from Semtech – which hopes to sell these chips to developers for use in devices on networks such as Bouygues’, or much smaller localized deployments too. Jaap Groot, Semtech’s senior director of international business development (and former Sigfox staffer) said that the current implementations support sub-GHz communication above 80MHz. Groot added that Bouygues is currently using the 868MHz ISM band, but that licensed spectrum could easily be used should the ISM bands start throwing up interference – as long as the regulators play ball.

Bouygues says it has been testing LoRa for the past 16 months in Grenoble, in conjunction with its international partners – Adeunis, Eolane, Kerlink, Sagemcom and Semtech. The technology behind LoRa was developed by Cycleo, a French company acquired by Semtech in 2012; making the low power wide area network (LPWAN) scene a rather French affair.

Bouygues is not the only MNO testing LoRa, as Belgacom, KPN, Swisscom and Fastnet have all declared that they are testing (and deploying in Fastnet and KPN’s cases) LoRa infrastructure. In total, 19 operators are testing the technology, but the other 14 have yet to announce it publicly.

Fellow-French company Sigfox exists in a very similar space, with its ultra-narrow-band (UNB) radio protocol, and is likely to object to Bouygues’ claim that the new LoRa system is the first French IoT network given Sigfox’s national territorial coverage. While the LoRa approach is different, the Bouygues news is the first time an MNO has deployed an IoT-focused network itself in the country – as Sigfox currently installs its own French equipment, but uses network partners for installations in other countries, such as Arqiva in the UK and Abertis in Spain.

The LPWANs present an opportunity for the established MNOs to quickly move into the lucrative M2M market, while laying the groundworks for expanding into the wider IoT applications when the developers begin asking for such connectivity.

For Bouygues, it is a way of adding new revenues to those it generates from its 11.1 million mobile and 2.4 million fixed broadband customers – in addition to its 4G network that it says covers 71% of the French population (some 45 million people). With that infrastructure already in place, as well as the customer-facing parts of the business like call center staff and billing systems, telcos like Bouygues should have a fairly straightforward path into the world of M2M and specialized IoT networks.

Given the existing infrastructure agreements that an MNO will have with local governments and regulators, as well as the expertise of installation technicians and support staff, the MNOs are well-placed to take advantage of a technology such as LoRa – as the synergies that can be extracted from the overlaps between their own cellular equipment and experience and the newly emerging approach should make an LPWAN investment an attractive proposition for shareholders.

While the Sigfox approach firmly places itself in the ISM band, LoRa can be adapted to use any available frequency that the network installer has available to them – particularly useful for the MNOs that already have available licensed spectrum, and also the negotiating clout needed to secure more. Protected spectrum will have a whole range of QoS benefits that aren’t as readily available to those operating in the unlicensed bands – and it still looks like the cellcos will be the primary winners of the valuable sub-GHz spectrum auctions that are so valuable for these LPWAN implementations.

The radio protocol itself claims ten-year battery life, strong indoor penetration, bidirectional communication, and robust security – which it says makes the approach suitable for the usual range of IoT applications, including environmental sensing, smart city automation, asset tracking and logistics, and smart agriculture.

At the radio silicon level, Semtech is the only player in the LoRa game. Microchip has a MCU that uses a Semtech radio, but Semtech’s current game plan is to compete purely at the radio level – hoping to leverage its head start and scale to out-compete any new entrants who hope to create their own version of a LoRa radio.

With its Adaptive Data Rate (ADR) approach, Semtech says the LoRa modules are able to dynamically adjust their output power in response to changing network conditions. This means that a device can boost its output power (at the expense of battery life) to ensure its message is heard by a far-away base station, but should a new base station be installed nearer the device (or if the device is moved nearer itself), the device can be instructed to lower its output – and with 8 channels of chirp bursts, Semtech says this makes LoRa very spectrum-efficient.

The self-organizing element is dictated by the cloud installations, which centrally manage the end-points and gateways based on those changing network conditions. At the MAC layer, the LoRaMAC (device) and LoRaWAN (gateway) stacks are open source, and have been developed by IBM, Semtech and Actility.

Once the gateways backhaul the messages to the internet, the cloud services will be another point in the chain that will attract some fairly serious competition. With options for public or private clouds, the ability to offer Platforms-as-a-Service (PaaS) will excite the software players looking to enable businesses to do something with the data that a LoRa device and gateway brings to the cloud.

“The IoT is going to transform entire areas of our economy,” said Bouygues Telecom’s CEO, Olivier Roussat. “Thanks to the expertise and the infrastructure of Bouygues, we will be able to quickly offer nationwide coverage with a high quality service.” Semtech SVP and GM Alain Dantec added that “Bouygues’ long-standing involvement and ceaseless work to improve the LoRa technology has made it one of the world’s leading experts in IoT technology.”

Flashnet’s inteliLIGHT platform:

As for the Flashnet announcement, the company has announced that it has added LoRa to its list of connectivity options for the inteliLIGHT platform – which currently handles streetlight management for millions of people living in tens of cities, using some 70,000 lamp controllers. Flashnet is a member of the LoRa Alliance, and was founded in 2005.

LoRa will be used to link the lamp controllers with the monitoring units, which were previously linked by either power line communication (PLC) or a RF mesh. Flashnet says it has moved away from the unnamed mesh as it was limited by its low range, which increased implementation costs. LoRa appears to have answered that concern.

To this end, Flashnet has produced the LoRaNET base station. The company says the unit will be able to manage more than 20,000 controllers up to a range of 15km, with urban density being the biggest limiting factor.

“LoRa is not only providing low-consumption long-range bidirectional communication for our lamp controllers, it can integrate other smart city applications with minimum cost and effort. We are expecting a revolution in overall city management solutions,” said Lorand Mozes, Flashnet’s CEO.