According to reasonable estimates, the world will have close to 76 billion connected devices by the end of 2025. Internet of Things (IoT) has already started to make its presence felt in diverse fields – affecting and improving the lives and operations of both general customers (the random Joe-s) as well as governmental bodies. While North America, Greater China and Europe are, expectedly, the runaway leaders – India is moving ahead at a fast clip in this domain. A recent report pegged the annual IoT growth rate in India (for the 2017-2020 period) at ~41% – well over the worldwide growth rate.
As the IoT industry continues to mature and move beyond the experimentation phases, the importance of the LPWAN (low power wide area networks) market is increasingly coming into focus. By 2025, 1 out of every 9 smart devices is set to be connected with one or the other form of LPWAN technologies. There will be 190+ million LPWAN-connected devices in 2019 – and in another two years’ time, the global market value of this sector will touch the $24.5 billion mark. With proven benefits in a large number of fields – right from smart agriculture and home automation, to sensor-based weather forecasting, predictive maintenance, smart water metering and creation of smart cities – Semtech’s LoRa technology (LoRaWAN) is rapidly gaining in popularity and adoption across the globe. In India too, a lot of research work, developments and trials (along with heavy investments) are being made on this technology. Over here, we will do a roundup of the state of LoRa technology in India:
What exactly is the LoRa technology?
The LoRa technology refers to a long-range, low-power radio communication technology – typically used for systematic data transfer with low data throughput rates. While LoRa and LoRaWAN are often treated synonymously, the two are not one and the same. The former refers to the chirp-based spectrum (or, CSS)-powered physical layer, while the latter is the open-standard MAC layer protocol which serves as the platform for utilizing the built-in LoRa architecture. Put in another way, the physical layer (LoRa) powers the long range link in the architecture (i.e, the LoRa module is present in the physical layer), and LoRaWAN operates as the main network and communication protocol. The range of LoRaWAN networks is around 4-5 kilometers in urban settings, and can comfortably be more than 40 kilometers in rural areas (in semi-urban areas, the range should be around 15 km). On average, the battery life of LoRa systems can be as high as 8-9 years – thanks to the Adaptive Data Rate (ADR) system used in these networks. LoRa networks can function under water, have ~50 meters underground range, and can penetrate 6-7 walls of buildings in urban areas.
Note: By 2022, the worldwide IoT market will be worth northwards of $300 billion. India will account for around 20% of this market.
The largest LoRa deployment in the world
Taken together, North America, Europe and China make up almost 66% of the global IoT industry at present. India is set to become a major player in this field in the foreseeable future – with Tata Communications planning the ‘largest LoRa network deployment in the world’ over here. The deployment will be complete by the end of 2019, and over $100 million has been earmarked for investment over the next couple of years. As many as 38 important Indian cities will have dedicated IoT networks (powered by LPWAN). The Tata Telecommunications MOVE platform – with its capacity for seamless integration of multiple IoT applications – is also being worked upon. In India, Tata is eyeing 6 major tracks, including automated safety solutions and a range of utilities. Over the next few quarters, more and more enterprises will be switching over to IoT (in general) and LoRaWAN (in particular) tools – in a bid to reduce costs and maximize efficiency levels. The technology will be rolled out in tier 1, 2, 3, and 4 cities (initial field trials have been conducted at Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru) – and well over 400 million people will be brought under the purview of LoRa-based connections. Over 30 proofs-of-concept (PoC) have also been created on the network.
Note: The machine-to-machine (M2M) communications made possible by LoRa technology will be radically different from traditional voice and data networks.
Competition and use cases in India
The degree of competition in the LPWAN market in India will increase, with the entry of new players, new GSM service providers, and other technologies (say, NB-IoT). This is precisely where Tata Telecommunications enjoys a definite ‘first-mover advantage’, with an ecosystem of 45+ device partners. On average, most tech entrepreneurs and startups have also been willing to give LoRaWAN a try, which is very encouraging. Of course, the biggest driver of the rising demand for LoRa networking in India is the multitude of use cases in which it can be applied – right from smart lighting and smart irrigation (hugely important in a country like India), to personal safety, gas and water metering, smart asset management, and real-time customer servicing/smart feedback. IoT will also provide an effective channel for employers to track the health metrics of workers round the clock. For long-range communications, SIM cards are mostly used till now. In future, that will change as well.
Note: In 2016, about 4 out of 10 smart devices were SIM-connected. The corresponding figure will drop to less than 2% by the end of 2020.
Using the 865 MHz – 868MHz frequency band
The LoRa system network is built in a ‘star-of-stars topology’ (and not the regular mesh network) – and the technology uses sub-1GHz unlicensed spectrums for direct sequence communication. While both the 433-434 MHz range and the 865-867 MHz are allowed in India, the former typically has low range – and is generally used only for making internet-enabled gaming applications. For more serious business/productivity tools, the 865-867 MHz is made use of by IoT developers. There is a point of confusion over here – since European Union (EU) allows the entire 863 – 870 MHz frequency range as licence free, but in India, 867 MHz is the final unlicensed band. However, a large number of the channels in the 868 MHz LoRa band (there are 8 channels overall, between 865.2 MHz and 868 MHz) are also license-free, providing the developers with that much more leeway. The proprietary Teks agritech tool uses the 866 MHz band.
Note: In the Americas, the 902-908 MHz frequency bands are used (915 MHz is the most common). Europe uses both 870-876 MHz and 915-921 MHz bands. Lower bands are, of course, also used in both places.
Challenges for LoRa technology in India
The advantages of LoRaWAN over cellular technologies are pretty much well-documented. It facilitates communication between base stations and smart sensors over longer ranges – and what’s more, a much lower number of base stations/gateways have to be set up (bringing down the overall expenses). There is also no dearth of requirements/use cases where the technology can be deployed. That said, there also exist several challenges that can potentially stand in the widespread usage of LoRa technology in India. For starters, the price points are still on the higher side – and scale/volume benefits can become available only if the biggest players (enterprises and OEMs) join the ecosystem. Making the target consumers aware of the benefits of LPWAN technologies, and the requirements/problems they can address, is also a significant task. Also, studies have confirmed that the 865-867 MHz in India might very well run out of capacity fairly soon – with IoT deployments constantly on the rise. TRAI has already recommended a 1 MHz addition in this band (along with a 6 MHz addition in the 915-935 MHz band). These will take the LoRa-based IoT system in India well and truly to the next level.
Note: In India, more than 100 smart cities have been planned. LoRa is well on its way towards becoming mainstream in the country.
Corporate collaborations driving LoRa growth
At last year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC), HP started its collaborations with Tata Communications for the first-of-its-kind LoRaWAN network system in India. The network would affect the lives of more than 2000 communities in the country – with deployments covering domains like fleet management, smart buildings & predictive maintenance, healthcare, campus management, security, and others. High-end LoRa support is embedded in the HPE Universal IoT Platform. For the smart cities program in India, Tata is also working with Semtech Corporation. French IoT provider Kerlink has also signed in with Tata Communications, with an Indian subsidiary office at Chennai (Kerlink base stations will be present in the LoRaWAN network). Senet, the LPWAN provider which announced managed services for IoT in June 2017, has forged a partnership with SenRa Tech – with the latter using Senet’s MNSI (managed network services for IoT). Several other players are also joining hands to bolster the LoRaWAN systems for the Indian environments. Going forward, these collaborations will be mighty important.
Note: Started in March 2015, the LoRa Alliance has grown rapidly over the years – and currently has well over 500 members.
Key elements in the LoRaWAN protocol
As already stated above, LoRaWAN is the media access control (MAC) protocol layer of the technology. Since it is powered by the ALOHA communication scheme, the connected devices can ‘wake’ at pre-specified intervals, for receiving/transferring data and checking downlinks (instead of staying ‘always on’). This ensures minimal energy consumption as well as communication latency. There are 3 device classes included in the protocol: the bidirectional Class A devices come with 2 shortlink windows and a single, scheduled uplink transmission window, the Class B devices have extra downlink windows & are fairly efficient with controlled downlink, and the Class C devices have continuous receiving windows, and typically consume much more power than the other two categories. Data transfer rates are controlled by the ADR system, and the node-to-gateway rates can support distances ranging from 0.3 km to 50 km. The ‘network capacity’ refers to the availability and capability of receiving messages/data from many nodes simultaneously. ADR, along with the multi-channel transmitters, enhance this capacity. The various internal technology trade-offs ensure that the technology remains highly scalable. Security is yet another issue that LoRa technology handles well – thanks to the AES-128 encryption standards used in the network. Data packets are sent by the connected devices, which are then decoded by the network server, and new packets are created for sending to the devices again.
Note: The data rate of a LoRaWAN protocol can vary from 290 bps to 50 kbps. The link budget and the data packet size is 154 dB.
How does LoRa stack up against the other LPWAN technologies?
The SS chirp-based LoRa technology compares favourably against most other LPWAN tools – making the former an ideal fit for powering IoT in India. The battery life, for instance, is much higher compared to NB-IoT (8 years vs 1-2 years, on average), and even Sigfox. While all the technologies are scalable, the data rates of LoRaWAN (min. 290 bps) are lower than that supported by LTE-M (min. 200 kbps), but higher than that of Sigfox (min. 100 bps). LoRa also stands marginally ahead in terms of link budget (154 dB vs 151 dB (NB-IoT) or 146 dB (Sigfox, LTE-M)). The excellent interference immunity is one of LoRaWAN’s biggest advantages (for the other LPWAN standards, interference is a big issue) – as are the mobility and localization capabilities. The power efficiencies of the different technologies are similarly high. LTE-M, however, blows LoRaWAN out of the park when it comes to range – with the former covering >30km (2G) and >180km (3G,4G), compared to the 2-5 km urban coverage of the latter. Depending on the specific use cases, the range of Sigfox can also be slightly higher than that of LoRa.
Note: Several other 3GPP standards (e.g., EC-GSM) and LPWAN technologies (e.g., RPMA, Weightless-N) are, at present, being commercially deployed. LoRa, however, is streets ahead of the others when it comes to usage in India.
Looking at the IEEE standards
LoRaWan follows the 802.15.4g IEEE standard (unlike, say, Zigbee, which uses 802.15.4). Apart from general smart outdoor applications based on LoRa, this standard also supports a range of low-rate wireless personal networks. The system requirements of smart metering utilities are addressed, along with the low data rate instances. This IEEE standard also has additional PHYs defined on it. Reports have confirmed that the 433-434 MHz frequency band can provide a maximum bandwidth of 10 mW, and is hence best suited for creating smart indoor applications. Like any other sub-GHz communication standard, the installation, deployment and maintenance cost of LoRa systems are relatively low. In smart grid applications (an automated metering mechanism, for instance), sub-GHz standards are ideal.
Note: Data rates between 6.25 kbps and 300 kbps are supported by the IEEE 802.15.4u standard.
10. IoT awareness in India is still low
In a recent survey covering 12 Indian cities, nearly 70% of the respondents expressed their willingness to switch over to ‘connected technology’ (read: IoT) – to allay their FOLO (‘fear of lights on’ at home). Apart from the greater conveniences of automated homes, many people also opined in favour of IoT as an effective tool for traffic management, maintaining healthcare records and various other use cases. In fact, three-fourth of the respondents were also willing to invest on the technology. However, there is a definite knowledge-gap when it comes to proper awareness about IoT per se. Nearly 35% respondents felt that the concept of ‘internet of things’ was associated exclusively with smartphones. More alarmingly, only 1 out of every 10 people felt that IoT could make a difference in the quality (QoS) of public services. A measly 14.6% people from the survey were found to be fully aware of the nature and the various applications/benefits of the technology. For LoRa-based IoT to truly take roots in India, the awareness levels have to be considerably boosted – and therein lies a big challenge.
Note: The biggest expectation of Indian consumers from IoT implementation is the betterment of personal healthcare. That is followed by pollution reduction, lower traffic congestions, and smarter personal safety.
11. Need for LoRaWAN testing
From heavy battery consumption, to glitches in the underlying radio technology – a lot of factors can prevent a LoRa network to perform optimally. Generally, such ‘bugs’ can pull up expenses – adversely affecting the viability of the concerned system. This brings us to the importance of thorough testing of LoRaWAN systems prior to deployment. The radio-frequency (RF) transmission quality has to be checked carefully – since non-regular receipts of data packets can cause higher-than-average battery drainage. The effect of each of the operations of a LoRa device on the latter’s battery also has to be analyzed. There are country-specific RF regulations (for instance, FCC Part 15.247 has to be complied with in the US) – and IoT app developers in India have to closely abide by the laid-down regulations. Moreover, the sensitivity of the receiver component has to be checked, to make sure that the RF reception powers are at desired levels. Semtech offers test software, and devices under test (DUT) should be working on them. The IoT market in India is at a nascent stage – and there are hardly any room for errors.
Note: Bluetooth, DASH7 and Sigfox are some other popular communication technologies.
12. The main components of LoRa networks
Broadly speaking, a LoRaWAN system has 3 major components. First up, there is the ‘network server’, which receives data packets from devices, duplicates/decodes them, and generates the packets to be returned. Next is the ‘gateway’, which uses an IP interface (with either 3G or Ethernet) to route data packets from the devices to the server (multiple gateways can be present in a single LoRa deployment). Finally, there are the ‘end-devices’ (in essence, the sensors), which use the LoRa technology for sending packets. Among the parameters required for personalizing the LoRa framework, ‘code rate’, ‘bandwidth’ and ‘spreading factor’ are the most important. The chirp rate of the system solely depends on the bandwidth of the system.
Note: For making the end-device customized, a series of MAC commands can be used. Some common LoRa MAC commands are ‘DutyCycleReq’, ‘LinkCheckReq’ and ‘LinkADRReq’.
IoT is not, contrary to what many think, a particularly new thing in India. The country already has a 40%+ share in the global IoT market – and the 2020-2025 CAGR will be around 55%. The lack of high-speed wireless data connectivity in the country (particularly in the rural areas) is an issue – but the foundations for IoT and LPWAN growth are already in place. A couple of months back, Nordic Automation Systems (NAS) and SenRa joined hands to develop smart street lights and smart metering solutions in India. We can easily expect many more such innovative LoRa-powered IoT solutions to debut in the near future. LoRa will change people’s lives in India, that’s for sure!