Operators mull proposal for national New Zealand IoT network

A national network would achieve economies of scale and allow for broader use of IoT applications, says LoRaWAN technology advocate John McDermott.

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Innovation in the development of IoT (internet of things) applications is being hampered by piecemeal networks that make it difficult to scale commercially. While early adopters have flocked to create new solutions and user communities have sprung up around New Zealand, there has been a distinct lack of coordination.

That's the view of IoT Auckland founder and commercial operator John McDermott, who is advocating for a publicly funded national IoT network in New Zealand. He is engaging with regional network operators and councils to turn current networks that utilise LoRaWan (Long Range Wide Area Networking) technology into a national system.

What is LoRaWAN?

LoRaWAN stands for long range wide area network, a wireless networking specification for  LPWANs – low power wide area networks designed for devices, such as sensors used in IoT, that are too small or power-constrained to use cellular.

"LoRaWAN has been around since 2015 and the LoRa Alliance manages standardisation and certification. Although based on a proprietary hardware from chip manufacturer Semtech, the wireless protocol is an open source project and may be deployed at no cost other than receiver gateways that can be as low as $100," McDermott says.

"As a result, devices and system equipment are cheap compared to alternative cellular products. The particular characteristics that underpin the popularity of LoRaWAN is its use of a free-to-use unlicensed radio band at 920MHz."

It is because LoRaWan systems are easy to deploy and cost-effective that there are several networks currently in operation. But McDermott says that as they aren't connected, this makes it difficult to deploy applications on a national scale. He has first-hand experience of using this technology as the founder of BoatSecure, a solution that monitors private boats in marinas.

IoT networks have not scaled nationally

"There are hotspots of connectivity for single-purpose applications but if a user wants to deploy a device elsewhere they need to provide for more gateways or arrange with another operator to provide communication," McDermott says.

"These private, small scale networks have proven themselves technically and for the commercial viability of their applications, but aren't scaling up nationally. I make a comparison with the Game of Risk: each player is rolling a dice to win more customers and become bigger with more territory," he says.

The next step, McDermott says, is for these small networks to merge or collaborate to increase coverage and allow applications to be deployed over bigger geographies, which should attract a larger user base and lower costs.

"The end result ought to be a single network, but this shouldn't result in a monopoly creation that extracts undeserved profit,"he says

Encryption is key to IoT network security

 McDermott says that security provision is fundamental to how LoRaWAN is deployed and operated.

"Transmission of messages in a public radio band isn't a particular security threat as any radio transmission is possible to intercept. What is critical is that data encryption is thorough and reliable," he says.

LoRaWAN messages are encrypted end-to-end, so that  unauthorised parties can not decode them, even if transmissions are intercepted, McDermott notes.

"An important implication of this process is that edge gateways can be deployed and configured by anyone to connect to a LoRaWAN network," McDermott says. "But these gateways only know where to route messages to reach the server — it is not possible to know who the message is meant for or what the data represents because the encryption is maintained until the final destination server that provides an API for the user's application."

McDermott advises using a professional network manager for combined LoRaWAN network resources, since any system where security is critical requires correct implementation and management of encryption processes. Using a professional manager as a shared resource would also bring best practices to the combined network in an economical manner, he added.

What would it cost and who would pay?

McDermott estimates that a ballpark figure for creating a national network is about $15 million, and that it can be achieved if client users, solution developers and network providers cooperate to create a single network.

"I've had conversations with several of these and there is support in principle for this proposal. I am encouraged that some council organisations are enthusiastic about this type of public-private partnership," McDermott says.

"A network like this can support council services, such as street lighting control and enable paid for public services such as building security monitoring and also enable private services like asset locating," McDermott adds. "Rather than being a for-profit equity owned business, the network is better operated as a not-for-profit association where the focus is service provision and sufficient income for operating costs."

WISPA, KotahiNET and Spark respond to national proposal

Computerworld New Zealand asked three organisations currently involved in LoRaWAN deployments for their reaction to McDermott's proposal.

Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA NZ) chair Mike Smith says the organisation, which represents about 30 wireless ISPs, has "a significant workstream in play around IoT and how WISPs with significant network coverage, comprising potentially thousands of locations around rural New Zealand, could serve to provide IoT connectivity nationwide."

"The work is around defining the feasibility of such an IoT network, the platform and interconnectivity requirements, the cost recovery realities and the opportunity economically and socially both for our WISPA members and the rural communities they serve. These are all key factors in this process we are undertaking," Smith says.

Smith says WISPA is in discussion with a number of prospective partners, including McDermott, around the concept and how it can be deployed.

"Many WISPA members are already working in this space, with their own initial IoT network trials and commercial deployments, often for niche clients. This early experience along with high-level discussions with others in the industry is promising and we expect to see significant movement in the space this year into next."

KotahiNet founder and CEO Vikram Kumar, whose company specialises in low-power IoT solutions, says it supports a national LoRaWAN network in principle.

"It will be great for New Zealand. An open specifications, low power, purpose-built IoT network across the country will deliver the low costs, scale and coverage to provide the step change in getting the potential benefits from IoT," he says.

"KotahiNet would definitely participate in such a network and tackle the issues that will need resolving," Kumar adds. "Our focus remains on helping customers get the benefits from IoT. Right now there is too much effort and focus on system integration across hardware, software, network, and data management. A utility-type national LoRaWAN network is therefore a step in the right direction. We have done something similar for Rarotonga with Vodafone Cook Islands."

Spark, meanwhile, appears happy with the status quo, with a spokesperson providing the following statement:

"Over the past five years Spark has progressively rolled out a multi IoT network strategy which has played a key role in supporting IoT use and adoption in New Zealand. Spark is focussed on providing IoT solutions and our extensive network coverage allows us to provide scalable solutions for a wide range of customers and uses cases. We believe the market is currently well served with a range of providers and networks providing a platform of IoT innovation and adoption."

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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