Traditional cellular networks are not required for Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity, Australia's National Narrowband Network Company (NNNCo) has argued, with long-range wide-area networks (LoRaWAN) able to fulfil the needs of connecting millions of devices.
Speaking during the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) RadComms 2017 conference in Sydney on Thursday, NNNCo CTO Eric Hamilton acknowledged that while it is understandable telcos want to use the spectrum they paid for, such networks are unnecessary for IoT to succeed.
"If cellular is the answer, it's possible you've been asking the wrong question," he said.
"It's very, very clear as well that for low-cost sensors, and for low-power usage, and for a broad range of different applications, there's no need to actually be within a cellular environment."
Tests of NNNCo's LoRaWAN network across the entirety of Melbourne have seen no issues come up, Hamilton said; the company did not lose any packets during trials, and is "very comfortable that LoRaWAN technology can and will work in this environment".
Hamilton also took aim at companies that spruik the population or landmass coverage of their IoT networks.
"A coverage metric like percentage of population is a good, easy measure, but unfortunately, in some respects, it's the wrong measure," the CTO argued.
"If you're actually worried about whether you've got an 80 or 90 percent coverage of the population, it's quite likely that you're actually thinking in terms of macro ... rather than thinking about what's happening at the ground level."
Hamilton added that it is not about what company has the largest area of coverage with its IoT network, but rather who provides the best service to its customers.
"Macro coverage itself doesn't ensure revenue generation. And for us, revenue generation is key," he said.
Hamilton's comments follow Telstra's recent announcements that it has the largest IoT coverage in the nation after switching on its Cat-M1 network in August, with the footprint now extending beyond its 4G network.
"Our 4G network covers 1.4 million square kilometres; with a feature called range extension, the system is able to actually send the bits repeated three times if they need to," Telstra director of Networks Mike Wright said in September, with the telco additionally aiming to establish an NB-IoT network within the next six months.
"We pushed the [Cat-M1] coverage range out from 1.4 to 3 million square kilometres."
By contrast, the NNN currently being rolled out across the country with Actility, and is aimed specifically at connecting utilities and agriculture with a more affordable solution than traditional mobile networks, NNNCo CEO Rob Zagarella has previously said.
Outlining one of NNNCo's recent projects on Thursday, Hamilton said it involved deploying 1.2-metre soil moisture and temperature probes in a vineyard, with the probes able to maintain connectivity with a base station around 2 kilometres away even while sitting 200mm below the surface of the earth.
In terms of securing its LoRaWAN network, blockchain-based security as well as over-the-air firmware upgrades will be necessary for IoT in future, according to the CTO.
NNNCo in June announced forming a joint-venture company called Connected Country to construct and manage a nationwide LoRaWAN IoT network in partnership with Discover Ag, to be built in extension to its previously announced network.
Connected Country's Rural IoT Network is aimed at providing low-cost connectivity to farmers to enable them to deploy IoT devices and solutions. The bi-directional communication capabilities allows farmers to not only receive data, but also control water infrastructure, track assets, deploy feeding and watering functions, and signal during emergencies.
The network immediately reached 1 million acres across New South Wales ahead of more widespread availability within 18 months to provide coverage to rural towns and properties, farming crops, horticulture, and livestock.
The announcement followed trials of LoRaWAN technology with Ergon Energy in Queensland last year.
NNNCo earlier this year also launched three IoT and machine-to-machine devices for use on LoRaWAN networks with Murata: Demand response enabling devices; a controller for smart streetlights; and a device that accepts inputs from sensors and sends data over LoRa networks.
Previous NNNCo Coverage
NNNCo's new joint venture with Discover Ag, Connected Country, will deploy a LoRaWAN IoT network across regional areas of Australia to enable "smart farms".
Following their six-month trial of LoRaWAN IoT technology with an energy utility, NNNCo and Actility will roll out a network across Australia on a project-by-project basis.
NNNCo has combined its software stack with Murata's LPWAN module to launch three end-to-end IoT and M2M devices, including a demand response enabling device and a smart streetlight controller.