LoRaWAN, the next big thing in satellite IoT?

This article was changed to reflect Semtech’s branding usage with LoRa referring to the use of Semtech silicon and LoRaWAN referring to the open standard protocol

With only 10% to 35% of the globe covered by terrestrial networks, there is plenty of room for expanding connectivity for Internet of Things (IoT) devices. Advocates for the LoRaWAN protocol are positioning the open standard to be the next Big Thing in the IoT space, with anywhere between 10 to 20 active satellite projects in progress and an official LoRaWAN standard for satellites released last fall.

“For the last three years we’ve mainly seen [Proofs of Concepts],” said Rémi Lorrain, Director of LoRaWAN Networks for Semtech, “This technology was not yet set. In November last year, the LoRa Alliance announced the LR-FHSS standard, as part of the LoRaWAN standard that was released officially. It’s an enabler for the ecosystem to scale.”

Multiple companies around the world are testing the new standard, Lorrain stated, dividing up the satellite IoT world into three areas, existing historical proprietary systems, the emergence of new LoRaWAN satellite systems, and ongoing work on with cellular-based systems using 5G standards.   LoRaWAN via satellite is now “entering in the commercial phase in the coming two years and then be able to scale.”

While Swarm Technologies uses LoRa as a basis for its system, the company created a “proprietary” implementation prior to the release of the LR-FHSS standard, according to Lorrain, with Swarm “tile” ground devices incorporating a Semtech chip, additional silicon and additional functionalities like embedded security, not plug-and-play compatible with other devices adhering to the LoRaWAN standard.

Most satellite IoT projects were waiting on the LoRa Alliance release of the LR-FHSS standard before proceeding, but there are already a number of “intermediate” solutions available that bridge the gap between terrestrial LoRaWAN usage and satellite. Kinéis provides a module that will operate between LoRaWAN networks and the company’s proprietary ARGOS satellite network, while Fleet Space Technologies and Hiber offer multi-functional gateways using LoRa and other wireless standards that aggregate LoRa devices and forward data through existing satellite resources.

Semtech is very circumspect in discussing what satellite LoRaWAN projects are in progress. Part of this is likely due to some disputes on intellectual property and trade secrets between and among LoRaWAN ecosystem members along with many different approaches being taken in the LoRaWAN marketplace.  Some projects could use LoRaWAM for both uplink and downlink while others will prefer to use proprietary solutions for downlink, especially if they have licenses to spectrum outside of the LoRaWAN RF standards.

Regardless of the approach, Semtech is well positioned to see its silicon used as the basis of satellite solutions in both existing proprietary solutions either in a gateway or as a dual mode device incorporating native LoRaWAN connectivity and satellite communication on proprietary/licensed bands along with pure-play LoRa-only solutions coming on the market in the next two years.

Doug Mohney

Doug Mohney, a principal at Cidera Analytics, has been working and writing about IT and satellite industries for over 20 years. His real world experience including stints at two start-ups, a commercial internet service provider that went public in 1997 for $150 million and a satellite internet broadband company. Follow him on Twitter at DougonTech or contact him at dmohney139 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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