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LoRa IoT utilities network stretches distances of 30km: NNN Co

The long-range, wide-area network being trialled with Ergon Energy can transmit at distances of up to 30km, Australian narrowband company NNN Co has announced.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

The National Narrowband Network Company (NNN Co) has provided an update on its utilities-based Internet of Things (IoT) LoRa network rollout across Australia, saying it can transmit signals to devices up to 30 kilometres away.

Speaking at Utility Week in Sydney on Wednesday, NNN Co CTO Eric Hamilton provided an update on the company's narrowband IoT technology trial with Ergon Energy, saying it provided coverage to Townsville, Queensland, with just three sites.

"In the case of Townsville, we built three base stations just as a proof of concept at this point in time, and provided coverage over a significant part of town with just those three base stations," Hamilton said.

"So this technology works, and it works over long distances; in fact, we've actually tested LoRa technology out to distances beyond 30 kilometres. Under normal circumstances, we'd build a base station every two to three kilometres, and within a CBD environment, like for example we've done within Melbourne CBD, we would be maybe down to about 300-metres radius."

Hamilton said that NNN Co also has the capabilities to control devices individually, narrowing them down by location, pole, or even what particular transformer they're connected to.

Also speaking at Utility Week, former CEO of Ergon Energy Ian McLeod said that the utility had decided to go with NNN Co's IoT solution after a competitive tender process.

"The pilot stage of the innovation program that I ran at Ergon ... that particular project with the LoRa technology won based on the business case put up, because it was deploying existing resources effectively, the cost per substation was substantially lower than any other technology utilised at the time, and obviously we're also looking at our smart metering," McLeod told ZDNet on Tuesday.

McLeod added that during the Ergon-NNN Co pilot, the two companies received signals from a distance of around 3km from the point of transmission.

"Controlled technology is going to be a key to the future," he said, adding that it is vital utilities use their resources more efficiently and effectively, and ensure they are enabled to control and ramp up and down those resources.

"Optimising the lowest-cost or funded resources is absolutely important. The Internet of Things is helping us do that, enabling control of the resources and improving the customer offering."

Improving the customer offering involves making the more efficient and controllable use of energy part of the standard pricing, McLeod added.

"In Ergon's case, we restructured the tariffs to 2015, and put seasonal time-of-use demand tariffs in. When you get intermediaries or others controlling those sorts of things, you can develop and deliver value propositions to customers -- lower energy, better service, security."

NNN Co last month announced that it would be delivering a narrowband Internet of Things (NB-IoT) long-range, wide-area network (LoRaWAN) for Ergon Energy in partnership with IoT service platform provider Actility.

In what NNN Co called the "world's first group multicast LoRaWAN deployment", the network is being trialled for six months, with sensors being installed on the hot water circuits of several houses in Townsville.

The companies are trialling a scalable solution for the energy utility, including controlling hot water usage at the street, neighbourhood, and district levels, and being able to easily respond to peak demand.

"The successful implementation of end-to-end multicast functionality results in a truly cost-effective, robust, and scalable two-way network service that can support remote over-the-air configuration and software upgrades in addition to group control of endpoint devices," NNN co-founder and CEO Rob Zagarella said in October.

"This opens up additional use cases that require near real-time monitoring and control capability such as public lighting, agricultural irrigation, water, infrastructure, and building automation. Demonstrating this capability in one of the most challenging environments puts us in pole position for growth across these segments both in Australia and globally via partnerships with the other LoRa Alliance member operators around the world."

The network will be operating on the industrial, scientific, and medical (ISM) 920-928MHz spectrum band, Zagarella told ZDNet, with configurable devices that would be able to work on ISM band extensions if more spectrum becomes available for IoT in future.

Last November, Zagarella argued that instead of cellular networks, LoRaWAN networks should form the backbone of IoT in order to bring down the inherent expense in connecting so many "things".

Zagarella said traditional mobile networks "aren't necessarily ideal to meet some of these IoT challenges", as they have been set up with high average revenue per user in mind, with significant costs and investments in spectrum.

"Low-power wide-area network technology was designed specifically to meet the low-power, low-throughput and link budget requirements of IoT," Zagarella said.

"It's adaptable, it doesn't need to be planned in the same way that an existing carrier technology does; it's designed to deal with a high level of interference, with random, unexpected signals, so there's no need to set aside specific spectrum for it; it uses a distributed RAN -- radio access network -- that accesses very low-cost and not very smart base stations that collect the data and transmit it back over a very large distance to the core without a lot of significant processing required, which again produces costs. And then, of course, there's a centralised network management infrastructure that manages that traffic across the network in a very optimal, efficient way."

NNN Co began trialling its technology on Sydney's North Shore in August 2015 across 10 base stations covering 50-100 square kilometres, with the company aiming to roll out its wireless network nationwide.

In Australia, the LoRa technology operates across the 918MHz-928MHz spectrum band.

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