Low-power wide area network technology (LPWAN) connects low-bandwidth, low-power devices over large, dense areas like cities. Common applications include street lighting, utility metering, industrial agriculture, asset tracking, oil and gas, and environmental monitoring—all cases were longer battery life, long operating range, and longevity in crowded environments are important design requirements.
In this article, we’ll cover the key characteristics of LPWAN, the best use cases for this technology, and some of the most common LPWAN solutions our customers are adopting..
What is LPWAN?
A relatively new term, LPWAN has proliferated in the industrial space with the explosion of IoT in the home. Higher deployment rates exposed the need to prioritize low power, coverage, low data rates, and security. In tandem, we’ve seen innovation in computing, power consumption, and battery power—resulting in more effective LPWAN technology.
All of this development happened alongside a growing market for cost-effective, application-specific alternatives to cellular technologies for connected devices. In this new landscape, cellular technologies are known for poor battery life and incomplete coverage, and emerging technologies like Bluetooth and Zigbee have limited range. While each of these technologies have unique strengths, LPWAN fills a gap for underserved applications that, by design, their counterparts have a harder time supporting.
Popular LPWAN Solutions Technologies
LPWAN takes many forms, so it’s able to serve multiple technologies and protocols, including open source and proprietary solutions. Here are the names we’re hearing most often as more and more companies turn to LPWAN.
Amazon Sidewalk is a low-bandwidth, long-range wireless network that uses Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), frequency-shift keying (FSK), and CSS technologies to create consumer-based wireless networks for IoT devices in the home and beyond. Silicon Labs provides IoT device makers with the most complete, one-stop-shop, wireless development solution for Amazon Sidewalk, simplifying your development process, reducing costs, and accelerating time to revenue for Amazon Sidewalk IoT devices. The certified solution comprises the Amazon Sidewalk SDK, wireless hardware, security, and development kits and tools.
Wi-SUN is an alliance-supported, globally available mesh topology. It’s fully open, with no subscription requirements, yet developers have access to private networks, strong security, and widespread vendor support.
Wirepas is a non-cellular 5G connectivity technology for enterprise IoT. Wirepas’ long-range LPWAN profile, 5G Mesh, has a dedicated spectrum at 1.9 GHz.
NB-IoT is the 4G/5G cellular version of LPWAN and LTE-M extends the network and licensed spectrum to machines. Major carriers have LTE and NB-IoT networks. While they offer proven infrastructure for tracking, mobility, and location, they draw more power than other solutions and require a paid subscription. NB-IoT/LTE-M is currently more popular in Asia due to regulatory requirements.
With functionally similar to LoRa, Mioty is an alliance-backed solution that’s best known for reliability in challenging environments, like mining, where functions primarily take place underground. Mioty delivers low power and long range with added redundancy to ensure data delivery.
Z-Wave Long Range
Z-Wave Long Range (LR) extends Z-Wave connectivity beyond the boundaries of the home and accelerates the adoption of Z-Wave in other verticals such as light commercial, hospitality, and multi-dwelling units (MDU). The specification supports a maximum output power of 30dBm, which can be leveraged to bolster range capabilities and support future transmission distances up to several miles.
Originally developed by Semtech, who still owns modulation, LoRa is a proprietary, ISM-band LPWAN technology that’s backed by the LoRa Alliance. The LoRaWAN specification dictates certification and compliance requirements to ensure interoperability. LoRa does not require a subscription, and it’s a star topology for long distances.
Considerations for Choosing LPWAN Technologies
As an emerging technology, the sub-GHz LPWAN market is subject to regulatory fragmentation. Every country has its own frequency band. Further, there are numerous use cases and ways to implement LPWAN. Within smart home, smart cities, and commercial agriculture alone, each segment has hundreds of relevant applications. With both of these factors in mind, there’s no silver bullet solution at this point.
Based on your use case and the regulatory environment in which you operate, you might narrow it down to 2 or 3 LPWAN solutions and then investigate ecosystems, interoperability, and vendor support.
When considering which LPWAN technology solution to work with, ecosystem partner, application requirements, and regulations/standards are the most important factors to examine.
Collecting answers to the following questions will help you assess LPWAN solutions more effectively:
- What ecosystem do you want to work in?
- Does the ecosystem offer the features you need?
- Is the ecosystem available in your region?
- Do you have vendors that support the ecosystem?
- Is interoperability possible?
- What are your application requirements?
- How long do you expect your device to be in field between servicing?
- What are your range expectations? Is range or performance more important?
- What are your battery life expectations? Is line power an option?
- What’s your link budget?
- Are there any RF sensitivity needs or concerns?
- What are your expectations for channel capacity?
- What are your bandwidth requirements?
- Is standards-based important to your application?
Designing for LPWAN
LPWAN presents operational strengths and weakness that can be exacerbated in design. For example, LPWAN technology is more susceptible to physical attacks because it’s more commonly found in the field rather than in private residences or other, more secure areas. In addition to network security, designers need to consider ways to produce tamper-proof hardware and housings. With respect to hardware, interference is a major concern in antenna design. If the product isn’t designed to meet the use case or the installer is less educated on best practices, the system won’t meet range expectations. On the software side, since LPWAN technologies rely on wake/sleep cycles, designers need a well-tuned algorithm to mitigate the energy used for waking and keep system-level power draw low.
Silicon Labs offers a variety of LPWAN solutions that range from flexible application programming interfaces (APIs) for custom solutions to partner stacks and full stacks. Whether you’re well versed in RF and connectivity or just venturing in, you’ll receive unwavering support throughout the development process.
We offer a variety of LPWAN solutions ranging from flexible application programming interfaces (APIs) for custom solutions to partner stacks and full stacks. In addition to support for the most popular LPWAN technologies, you’ll receive unwavering support throughout the development process.