Semtech spurs LoRa community with next-gen silicon, stares down cellular IoT carriers
With brand new silicon, a vibrant support network, and a profile burnished in the early IoT rush, LoRa specialist Semtech is looking to spread its wings and rise above the challenge from cellular IoT carriers.
Outside of the IoT space, the US semiconductor outfit has its silicon-irons in a number of fires. Its signal intensity products, its largest product line by revenue, are a mainstay in data centres; the company has a decent line in silicon for audio visual products and circuit protection, as well.
But we are here to talk LoRa, and LoRaWAN in general. “LoRa is positioned as an emerging market for Semtech, and a lot of focus goes on that effort,” comments David Armour, strategic marketing manager for the LoRa product group at Semtech.
Indeed, Semtech invented the technology and manufactures the chips. It is one of the founding members of the LoRa Alliance, the industry group promoting the technology in the market. IBM and Actility are the other founders. Membership stands at around 500, and includes high-profile late-comers like Google and Alibaba.
“It shows the interest – that it’s not just about metering and utilities, anymore. The technology is enabling other use cases, in smart buildings, smart cities, logistics and asset tracking, and agriculture,” says Armour.
But the utilities sector remains its biggest market. Enterprise IoT Insights met with Armour, last month, at European Utility Week in Vienna, where the hubbub in the auditoria is about the future of energy markets, decentralised business models, and ‘power to the people’.
On the show floor, however, the patter is more about the pragmatic rollout of meters; discussion about what might be possible when every power generator and consumer unit is connected is hardly a commercial pursuit, as yet.
Armour agrees: the transformation of the energy market is just getting started; the first job is to join the dots. At the same time, ’smartness’ is quickly multiplying as this ‘internet of things’ is becoming more networked.
“It’s true. The immediate metering is one use case. But once the network is in place, other sensors can be introduced into the ecosystem – going over the network and adding value,” he says.
Sensors for detecting water levels and leakages, or for monitoring smoke and fire, are piggybacking on new low-power wide-area (LPWA) networks, enabled by technologies like LoRa. The insurance industry, for one, is intensely interested, notes Armour.
“If you’ve been in Spain for two weeks and the taps have burst, insurance companies want to know if quick action was taken,” he says. Is Semtech engaging directly with the insurance industry?
“We’re engaging with every sector.”
Its expansionist ambition was evident in Vienna, where it joined a LoRa cohort – with Actility, Cahors, Sicame, and Vientech – to demonstrate the ‘device language message specification’ (DLMS) over a LoRaWAN network.
DLMS is used by utilities for devices with session-oriented communications; the Vienna demo showed backend data in proprietary utility systems can be extracted and carried over the LoRaWAN protocol. Importantly, it made the case for LoRa to be used in electricity meters, where it has so far under-indexed – it is a go-to technology for water and gas meters, instead.
There is more brewing, between the two industry working groups. But the LoRa narrative is fast expanding to cover other industries, too. “Logistics, smart buildings, smart cities are coming up very fast. Our technology is a super fit for that,” says Armour.
The appeal of LoRa is triple-fold, he says, mostly describing straight LPWA characteristics: its extreme low-power, affording battery life of 10-15 years; its deep radio propagation, getting even into out-of-reach bunkers; and its wide-area coverage, enabling rapid scaling of solutions.
“We are a low bit-rate technology, so we don’t send a lot of traffic, but we send it over incredible distances at world beating power consumption numbers,” he says.
Throw in multi-level encryption, marking it out from local-area technologies like Wi-Fi, and LoRaWAN is hard to pick fault with for cheap LPWA machine connections. Data is encrypted all the way through the gateway and server to the application, he notes.
But beneath the wide LPWA horizon, the LoRa community must pick off its targets. “We can’t boil the ocean. We’re focused on certain segments,” says Armour, pointing also to its application in agricultural settings.
A LoRaWAN gateway, in an elevated position on a farm, will provide low bit-rate coverage for 20 kilometres, or more, he suggests. “You could have all the soil and crop sensors on the ground, talking to tractors; a whole heap of things could be in there to help with that automation and monitoring.”
Semtech is pulling together a library of proofs and use cases, to ease the deployment of LoRa-based solutions in the rangy IoT market. “Have a look. If it works for you, then you’re quicker to market. Worst case, you might have to invent a couple of the pieces. But don’t develop it all. Most of it should be there already,” he says.
But as the chief LoRa architect, Semtech’s role is essentially to reflect market trends and demands in silicon, while the LoRa Alliance develops the standard, unites the community, and cheer-leads the movement.
Semtech has produced no more than 10 LoRaWAN chips, in total, split between two families: the original-generation SX127X and the new-generation SX126X, launched in April.
These go into end-node sensors and gateways, as well as IoT modules. The SX127X is in most LoRaWAN-connected meters, today. Designed for the utilities market, it also supports non-LoRaWAN modulation schemes like wireless M-BUS. The SX127X will remain the choice for utilities, he suggests.
Different markets have different demands. The new SX126X, by contrast, is a dedicated LoRaWAN family, which packs in a number of performance improvements. It feeds the latent appetite in parallel ‘verticals’ for even lower power applications, reflects Armour.
The SX126X uses half the power for receiving data, and a quarter less power for transmitting. The reduction in transmission power is the greater engineering feat, reckons Armour. The new SX126X chips are also half the size of their forebears.
“We are making devices last longer on the same size batteries, or else shrinking the battery to go into smaller devices.”
He adds: “The new family doesn’t replace the old family; it’s a complementary thing – an optimisation for LoRa, for new designs that require even better power consumption.”
The SX126X will open new markets for the LoRa collective, notably in asset tracking, whether of packages, patients, or pets. “I’m going to get one to put on my son’s bag – not on him, but on his bag. He comes home every day; his bag doesn’t,” he jokes.
He explains: “It is what’s needed to go into some of the other segments we’re focusing on.”
What’s next? What does the community want from the next generation, after the SX126X. What’s missing? “To be honest, I think we’ve nailed it with this latest family of chips.”
The low-power IoT market, which has essentially propped up early iterations of ‘smart cities’ and ‘smart industries’, turns on long 10-15 year upgrade cycles, of course. It is not like the consumer smartphone market; sales will come from exploding new market sectors, and flashing new software.
“Our strength and reputation comes from the longevity of the products. That is important for the sectors we’re going into. It’s different for consumer electronics, where your phone will be replaced in a year or two.”
To date, the IoT market has turned on LPWA technologies like LoRaWAN. Is there a fear the traditional cellular operator are joining the battle, and that prices will tumble as scale is achieved, making the business case for unlicensed cellular LPWA solutions harder? Or will LoRaWAN retain its price and battery-life advantage, always?
“It’s a changing landscape. Technology moves on all the time. We’re investing very heavily to stay ahead of the curve,” says Armour.
As for now, each technology has its application, we hear again. “These technologies are largely complementary. Real use cases are different. NB-IoT, say, has certain benefits, like higher bandwidth. But its power consumption is significantly greater.”
He recounts the LPWA trade-off, anyway – ultimately that, of LPWAN technologies, LoRaWAN is a little more LPWA than the rest, and cheaper and simpler besides.
“We not only have a much lower power consumption, but we can run on smaller batteries. The peak current of some of the other wireless technologies is too high, and would drive more expensive battery technology. Looking at the overall solution cost, over the lifetime of the product, LoRa scores incredibly well.”