Internet of Things: LPWAN requirements

Choosing the right network for the Internet of Things is a foundational decision, writes Eric Dresselhuys, Silver Spring Networks.
Published: Wed 14 Sep 2016

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The Internet of Things brings the prospect of 50 million connected ‘things’ by 2020. From devices and sensors in infrastructure to tools such as smartphones and computers, the IoT should accelerate a smarter, safer and more productive society based on a more sustainable lifestyle.

The opportunities are endless. Imagine, for example, public lighting that is aware of someone walking beneath and adaptively brightens the path; where traffic patterns are adjusted real-time due to congestion or pollution levels; or where buildings and homes adjust their behaviour based upon signals sent from the buildings next door.

Ultimately this new connectivity will be only as good as the communications networks on which they are run. In practice these will be built out of existing networks, such as those deployed by utilities for their smart grid, along with new purpose built networks for the new applications and the traditional telecom networks.

As has been experienced in the creation of the internet itself, technology matters. The core technology choices made will make or break this new IoT world.

Network requirements

In understanding the requirements for IoT networks, it is instructive to look back.

Think of names such as CellNet, Hexagram and Whisper, which were introduced for M2M communications in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Today, these have all disappeared. Why? Although technically they delivered some minimum level of functionality, they failed in some important ways. Specifically, they were entirely proprietary and too limited in capacity to support a range of applications.

Even today many of the solutions aren’t much improved. For example, many of the new breed of low power wide area network (LPWAN) solutions are little more than dusted off versions of the older technology architectures that had lost out years ago. They offer bandwidths of less than 50kbps and their security is limited. Some rely on a ‘security by obscurity’ approach, betting that their relatively limited footprint makes them a less attractive target to hackers and malware, while others assume that 128-bit AES encryption provides plenty of protection. [Engerati-LPWA-Disruptive new networks for IoT]

Networks – three ‘Ss’

Time has taught that there are three fundamental design requirements for any LPWAN.

1. Standards are critical for interoperability and avoiding single vendor lock-in to a technology. Several LPWAN technologies are developed and owned by a single company. The existence of a limited number of developers or a generic ‘alliance’ masks the risks of such control. For 21st century networking IP technology, used for the internet itself, guarantees a standardized and future-proof networking environment.

2. Security is the greatest operational threat to the IoT. With cyber threats on the increase and many of the distributed devices having no guarantee of physical security, cyber security must be designed into the solution from the start.

3. Scalability is a fundamental design issue. In order to accommodate the security requirements and to allow for application growth, there must be sufficient bandwidth. A decade ago 100kbps was considered too high a capacity but recent products achieve 2.4Mbps – more than 20 times the previous capacity. For IoT applications a real-time response and update capability will be essential.

Another phenomenon is that there will be more distributed processing at the edge of the network. Moore’s Law tells us the cost of computing power continues to fall over time. This will create new devices with ever greater capabilities. It is intuitive. If you want the opening of a door to activate a light switch, it makes far more sense for the two devices to coordinate directly, versus giving each a SIM card, a cell phone plan, and forcing them to communicate all the way up to the cloud and back. Mesh networks provide the unique advantage of edge computing.

The Starfish network platform

An example of a network platform that meets these requirements is the aptly named Starfish from Silver Spring Networks.

The award winning Starfish is built using proven core platform technologies. IPv6 networking using a combination of carrier technologies, including the Wi-SUN Alliance’s IEEE 802.15.4g wireless meshing technology, ensures users open technology access, easy interoperability and performance in the field.

Rollouts of Starfish are taking place in Bristol, Glasgow and London in Great Britain, Copenhagen in Denmark, Crossmolina in Ireland, San Antonio, San Jose and Providence, Rhode Island in the US, and Kolkata, India.

For more about the Internet of Things applications in transmission and distribution networks, join Engerati’s In-focus programme IoT - the path to the intelligent grid. You can also hear from Silver Springs Networks, Smart Cities Lead, Brandon Davido in our Unlocking the Smart City with Integrated and Smart Infrastructure webinar!

Eric Dresselhuys is co-founder and EVP, Global Development at Silver Spring Networks.

Further reading

Enabling the IoT Transformation - Introducing Starfish