Simplicity is the key to smart neighbourhoods

Simplicity will be the watchword for 2021 – a statement that isn’t often used for wireless networks. The fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic will see significantly higher levels of working from home, and this will drive the demand for more effective smart technologies that are easier to use. Low power wide area network (LPWAN) technology is key to this, providing ubiquitous control throughout buildings of all kinds, working alongside broadband technologies such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

But this is not just about networks inside a building, but also the surrounding area. Smart neighbourhoods will be a driving theme for 2021, with simplicity (and security) at the heart of the ability to use these networks effectively.

LPWAN technology is already used for this. Devices such as the Ring doorbell already use the technology for control and configuration from a smart speaker. Over the next year, the use of LPWAN technology for this type of control is set to expand dramatically in many numbers of ways both inside and out.

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One example is Helium’s peer-to-peer LPWAN IoT hubs that are rolling out around the world in the unlicensed sub-GHz band. This allows consumers to easily host their own base station to provide connections across whole neighbourhoods. The simplicity of connecting IoT devices to the Helium network and sharing the links is key to its success. This allows people to add LWAN sensors and actuators without having to make buildings smarter without having to install a whole new infrastructure. This is a step change in how we use wireless technology.

Then there is Sidewalk. Amazon has included LPWAN capability in Alexa smart speakers, and this is extending out into the street to provide wireless capability throughout the neighbourhood in a real step towards the smart city. The initial rollout in the US will allow cars, buses, walkers and even pets access to a low power wireless. This will see smaller devices with longer battery life in a whole range of sensing and tracking applications that operate seamlessly across all parts of the smart city.

This will drive a dramatic increase in the number of devices that can connect to the Internet, and our existing systems will not be able to cope. This will become abundantly clear as the year progresses.
There are ways to tackle this. QR codes can significantly simplify the process of adding devices to the network and have been used for this ‘onboarding’ process over the last few years. This is being built into the latest LPWAN networks to help address the deluge of devices.

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But QR codes can only go so far. Automating the connection and using the cloud will be a key move during 2021. A simple API for LoRaWAN into Amazon’s cloud allows a wide range of LPWAN devices to be interoperable with simplicity baked in. This capability will start to be adopted during 2021 and will allow easy authentication and connection to the cloud.

That security element also should not be underestimated. Making wireless links and devices secure without adding layers of complexity for the user is a major challenge, and one that companies such as Amazon have been working on for years.

The simplicity of the cloud connection is a key part of the usability of LPWAN networks. Lower power, smaller device designs with longer battery life will see the technology become part of everyday life.
Making sure all the data running over these shared links is kept private is also key to reassuring users that the technology can be used safely.

All of these elements come together in 2021 to form the foundation of large scale networks that can be easily used. The higher volumes from a wide range of different suppliers will also drive down the cost of the devices. While some LPWAN designs use proprietary technologies, open standards with a wide range of technology suppliers are vital for these large scale networks.


The simplicity of using LPWAN technology across wide areas with low power is a key driver for the smart home and smart city. New ways to connect devices to a network that extends across neighbourhoods is going to see a dramatic growth in the way LPWAN systems are used.

With the support and active participation of an ecosystem of global technology companies around open standards, 2021 will see the emergence of truly smart neighbourhoods driven by the transparent use of long range wireless.

Written by Alistair Fulton, vice-president and general manager of Semtech‘s Wireless and Sensing Products Group

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