Should I Choose Cellular or LoRa for my IoT?

A conversation with Brian Ray, Chief Technology Officer and Founder of Link Labs.

    1.) There are a lot of discussions on IoT and how it connects smart cities, wireless health, monitors manufacturing and chemical processes etc. Additionally, it seems more and more companies are getting confused about Cellular IoT and LoRa. What are the major differences between the two and which one should I select?

At a fundamental level, LoRa is a low level, so called “Physical Layer” technology, whereas cellular IoT are systems made up of many different technologies and deployments. Some European and Asian carriers are experimenting with using LoRa with a system called LoRaWAN, as an alternative way to connect simple IoT devices to a network. However, most companies, Link Labs included, use LoRa more like Wi-Fi, where a large facility (factory, hospital, several city blocks) needs connectivity to IoT devices using wireless infrastructure.

Whether to use a mobile network for connectivity comes down to a few considerations like: mobility, power consumption, battery life and cost. If a device needs to “just connect” wherever it goes, then a mobile network is the only option. Technologies like LoRaWAN are deployed to make that connection more power efficient and inexpensive. The drawback is that LoRaWAN messages are mostly unidirectional and limited to a handful of bytes and deployments are very limited to date. Applications that need to send more data or have requirements for firmware over-the-air, for example, would not be able to use LoRaWAN.

The newest cellular IoT to appear in deployed networks is LTE Cat-M1. M1 is a 3GPP based 4G standard that narrows the bandwidth of the LTE signal, making chips less expensive and power hungry. The addition of Power Saving Mode (PSM) and extended discontinuous reception (eDRX) allow LTE M1 devices to achieve very long battery life. The upside of M1 is that data rates are 100-1000x higher than LoRa, meaning that devices can transfer data bi-directionally much faster, saving power.

    2.) While there are obvious benefits in implementing IoT solutions, for some companies, it is easier said than done. What are the biggest challenges in setting up low-power IoT?

Systems engineering is the biggest limitation holding many companies back. There are many wireless technologies, networks, sensors, and data platforms available to solve nearly any IoT problem. The issue then becomes developing a cost-constrained system, while business cases are still under construction.

Cost is a very important driver in almost all IoT projects. Often the business case for an IoT product hinges on the total system cost as it relates to incremental revenue or cost savings generated by the system. However, optimizing hardware and connectivity for cost is a difficult and time consuming effort on its own. Often, teams are forced by management to come to the table during early stages of ideation with solutions where the costs are highly constrained.

A better approach is to build “minimum viable” prototypes to help flesh out the business case, and spend time thereafter building a roadmap to cost reduction. There is a tremendous amount of learning that will happen once real IoT products get in front of customers and the sales team. This feedback will be invaluable in shaping the released product. Anything you do to delay or complicate getting to this feedback cycle will slow down getting the product to market.

    3.) What are the major offerings from Link Labs in the area of IoT?

Link Labs supports enterprise and industrial customers with a low power, wide area technology platform that uses LoRa, called Symphony Link, as well as an LTE Cat-M1 based version. The goal of this platform is to optimize the cost and battery life for industrial IoT deployments.
We also have a separate business unit called AirFinder, which leverages our technology in combination with Bluetooth Low Energy to offer a very cost efficient Real Time Location System (RTLS) for asset tracking.

We support customers throughout the product lifecycle, from development services, to hardware sales, to ongoing software support and deployment.

    4.) I understand you are forming a partnership with Digi? What is the motivation behind it and what are you hoping to achieve?

Our focus at Link Labs is system designs, firmware, and software to support complex industrial IoT use cases. Digi provides a variety of wireless modules and so it makes sense to partner to help us scale and gain access to the growing enterprise IoT market. We have a lot more to share in the upcoming months so stay tuned!

Author Bio:

Brian is the Founder and CTO of Link Labs. As the chief technical innovator at the company, Brian has led the creation and deployment of a new type of long-range, low-power wireless networking which is transforming the Internet of Things and M2M space. He previously led technology teams at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab and Lookingglass, after serving as a US submarine officer. He is a graduate of the University of Oxford and the US Naval Academy.