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We built this city (on LPWAN) 

The interoperability offered with LPWAN networks enables the benefits of a truly smart city environment to be shared by all, writes Alistair Fulton, of Semtech’s Wireless and Sensing Products Group.


Smart cities will see a dramatic change over the next few years, as a new way of rolling out low power wide area wireless networks (LPWAN) takes effect.

This will impact a huge range of applications, initially in the home but rapidly branching out across the streets, commercial buildings and public spaces that make up the modern city. Public safety has a much broader meaning after the Covid-19 pandemic. Monitoring footfall and occupancy of offices and shops has taken on a new significance.


Tracking shipments across a city is even more vital with many more people working from home. The leading LPWAN technology, based on Semtech’s LoRa devices and the LoRaWAN protocol, is opening up these smart city applications with some key industry moves.


Defacto standard

The technology has become the de facto standard for smart factories, allowing industrial equipment to be monitored quickly and easily with low power sensors that have a long battery life. The wireless frequencies it uses, at 868MHz in Europe and 915MHz in the US, enables a long range of many kilometres with secure, low latency links and data rates suitable for sensors.

These networks are already being used for a wide range of industrial applications, monitoring hectares of forest for nascent fires, or monitoring the soil across smart farms to boost the production of food.

These attributes are now making their way into the smart city. The city of Frankfurt for example is rolling out 40 gateways to cover the whole city with the long range technology, connecting up sensors to monitor footfall.

While mobile networks have bathed cities in high data rate wireless connectivity for smartphones, and Wi-Fi networks have dominated the home and office, the urban environment has struggled to find a cost-effective wireless solution.


The need to control costs, to rapidly deploy and connect every sensor across a smart city, regardless of whether those sensors are underground, in buildings or in the public spaces in between, has until now prevented many cities from taking advantage of all that smart city solutions have to offer.

The city of Frankfurt for example is rolling out 40 gateways to cover the whole city with the long range technology, connecting up sensors to monitor footfall

A new generation of LPWAN innovation is now opening up opportunities across the smart city and into smart buildings, creating seamless networks that can support an endless multitude of applications that can improve the quality of life for city residents, energy efficiency and most importantly public health.

This is enabled by new pervasive ways of rolling out LPWAN networks that will see an LPWAN gateway become a fixture in most homes, enabling coverage not only of the entire home but, thanks to the range of LPWAN, reaching far into the streets and city beyond.

The peer-to-peer network Helium has already deployed over 14 thousand gateways across 1,000 US cities and is now turning its sights to Europe. Driven by a viral network deployment model, Helium leverages LoRaWAN’s ease of deployment and has created an innovative reward structure for customers, using cryptocurrency technology to provide secure access and to reward “gateway operators” for supporting community traffic as well as their own smart home needs.


This allows households without their own gateway to still use the pervasive network for smart door locks, water sensors and connected smoke alarms, all without a monthly bill or expensive hardware, increasing the speed with which cities can realise the benefits of smart city applications for all residents not just a few.


Amazon’s LPWAN

That model is set to become even more pervasive as Amazon roles out its own LPWAN enabled Echo range of smart speakers as part of the Amazon Sidewalk network. Amazon Sidewalk will enable voice control and management of all kinds of equipment in the home, linking the LPWAN network to the home Wi-Fi and then onwards to the whole of the Internet and back.


While systems such as the Ring range of lighting and security products already use an LPWAN link, Sidewalk will bring these systems together to provide a ubiquitous low cost network for every capable device in the home, including non-Amazon devices.

With a simple deployment and set up process, devices can be easily paired and connect instantly to the cloud, to enable a vast range of smart home and smart city applications without the headache all too often associated with solutions today that use shorter range technologies like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.


Thanks to the extremely low power requirements of LPWAN networks, devices can be connected for months or even years using simple coin cell batteries, enabling a range of solutions where charging a device or replacing a battery is simply impractical. For applications like pet tracking or elderly care, being able to count on a device having power and a long range network connection when its needed can literally be the difference between life or death.

With a simple deployment and set up process, devices can be easily paired and connect instantly to the cloud, to enable a vast range of smart home and smart city applications

But the importance of this technology is that it extends far beyond the home and out into the smart city. Vehicles such as buses and cars can be tracked across the city, delivering detailed data to the travelling population, parcels can be tracked from warehouse to home and streetlights and other public infrastructure can be managed, dramatically reducing energy costs and environmental impact.


This scales even further when it links to the smart factory. Electronic products in the factory can be tracked through the manufacturing process, through the delivery across multiple cities and into the home, all using one tag and the same network. That tag can deliver usage and reliability data, identifying when a customer needs set-up support or flagging problems ahead of equipment breaking down and ordering a repair in good time, all automatically.

As with all applications that exist within our homes and public spaces, data security is critical, particularly where networks or even sensors are shared resources. LPWAN protocols are designed to be secure and are very difficult to intercept (or even detect), unlike Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.


Security considerations

Amazon’s Sidewalk network, for example, prides itself on providing and extremely robust security protection for customers using these capabilities.

As well as protecting personal data, security is key to enabling the anonymisation of shared data like travel patterns that, if shared, can deliver incredible value across the smart city whether for traffic optimisation, energy management or contact tracing to support public health initiatives to manage Covid-19.

The roll-out of networks like Helium and Sidewalk can provide affordable shared network coverage, driving down the incremental cost of deploying additional smart solutions for city managers, increasing speed of adoption and driving rapid economic and social returns from smart city initiatives.


The interoperability that comes with these new networks, turning their backs on the proprietary solutions of old where only one type of sensor could connect to one type of gateway, goes one step further, enabling the benefits of a truly smart city environment to be shared by all.

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