LoRa promises cheap low-power alternative to 5G for IoT devices

A wireless communication technology called LoRa could become the future of communication between Internet-of-Things (IoT) devices.

LoRa (Long Range) is among a clutch of narrowband technologies that connect devices cheaply over unlicensed spectrum and vast distances and needs very little power.

Unlike 5G networks or Bluetooth, which are more commonly touted as possible technologies for IoT adoption, LoRa’s drawback is that it can only send small parcels of data, rather than the gigabytes most wired and mobile standards aspire to.

However, advocates of the platform argue that this may be more than enough.

"It turns out you don't need that huge an infrastructure and it can be driven by small devices that are very smart and not very expensive," says Mike Cruse, CEO of Definium Technologies, which is building LoRa-based devices for farmers, universities and mines.

The IoT has long promised to hook up devices - everything from aircraft to hairdryers - enabling owners to monitor, control and collect data from them remotely. Spending on the IoT is estimated to hit $6tr between 2015 and 2020, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The technology currently available has limitations that has slowed its adoption. For example, Ericsson recently almost halved the number of connected devices it expects to sell by 2020, which even includes smartphones.

Critics believe the slower than expected take-up of IoT devices is because the current solutions are too expensive and elaborate for what is needed. Most involve cellular connections which are either impractical in rural areas or beyond a user's budget. Ericsson believes that only 1.5 billion of the 16 billion IoT devices it reckons will be connected in 2021 will rely on cellular networks.

LoRa, a narrowband standard adopted by the likes of Cisco and IBM, is capable of working on thumbnail-sized radios that send and receive data that sell for a dollar or less.

Dutch enthusiasts are building a global community of open-source LoRa gateways, called the Things Network.

Nodes send and receive messages, about a tenth of the size of an SMS, for periods of time ranging from every couple of minutes to once every few hours. Followers have rolled out their own experimental networks using the community's software in cities from Colombia to Russia.

Founder Wienke Giezeman said a $300 gateway, which connects the LoRa nodes to the Internet, will be available next month with only half a dozen needed to cover an average-sized city.

Meanwhile traditional communication protocols like Bluetooth and 5G are making strides to ensure that when IoT finally hits the mainstream, they will dominate the market.

Bluetooth recently updated its standard to version 5.0 which quadruples the range of the previous iteration, doubles the speed and has an 800 per cent increase in data broadcasting capacity without increasing power consumption. 

Innovate UK also announced a £1m funding programme last year designed to support businesses investing in projects that can take advantage of the UK’s future 5G infrastructure which includes IoT. 

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