However, a problem that stands in the way is the issue of “By what means do we use to connect things to the Internet?” For a PC, the answer is Wi-Fi, and for a smartphone the answer is a cellular network, but when connecting smaller things to the Internet and considering power consumption and cost, it is hard to say that either of these is an appropriate means.
For that reason, attention has turned to the Low-Power Wide-Area network (LPWA). This is a general term for wireless communications technology characterized by low power and wide range, and it does not point to a particular technology or service.
The electronic components maker Murata Manufacturing Co., Ltd. is one manufacturer focused on the potential of LPWA. Murata's name brings to mind electronic components that incorporate ceramic materials, such as multilayer ceramic capacitors, surface acoustic wave filters, and ceramic resonators, but the company also handles wireless communications devices that utilize Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, with a majority share of the worldwide market for these components in smartphones, and it can also be called a specialist in near-field communication devices.
Murata is now becoming involved with LPWA on a global scale. It has already started international production of modules for "LoRa,” which is regarded as a leading LPWA standard, and it has announced cooperation with SoftBank to promote an IoT service in Japan that utilizes LPWA. At industry exhibitions, the company is also introducing a management solution that combines LPWA with Bluetooth.
The interesting aspect of these actions is that the company is not merely offering components (modules) but is becoming actively engaged in the creation of services that utilize LPWA and the providing of applications to businesses that are considering its adoption.
“It is very likely that additional value and numerous benefits will be created by easily connecting objects that previously were not connected, and doing so in high volume. Murata is eager to help with that effort.” Akira Sasaki, manager of the IoT Module Department at Murata, presents the company's stance on LPWA in this way.
(Photograph) Akira Sasaki, Murata Manufacturing, IoT Module Products Department, Communications Module Division, IoT Module Department Manager (at left), and Takahiro Watanabe, Development Section Senior Manager (at right)
●Relationship between LPWA and Murata - 90% of product sales is coming from overseas
There is no doubt that the spread of the IoT concept is the reason for the focus on LPWA, but the need for distributing small amounts of data on a low-power network was present before the term IoT was coined. The ideas behind a "smart city," and the related experiments to produce one, are testimony to this.
Several smart city validation experiments are being conducted in Europe and America, and the resulting need for "wireless technology that covers an entire city with a low-power network" (LPWA) can be tied to the establishing of the standards called Sigfox (main office in France) and LoRa (established by SEMTECH). As the demand for LPWA is growing tremendously in Europe and America, 90% of the sales of Murata's LPWA products came from overseas.
"Beginning from the smart city, the Internet of Things (IoT) is coming to be of interest everywhere in the world, and the focus on LPWA as a technology for connecting things will continue to grow from here on. Such enthusiasm is not limited to Europe, America and Japan, it is also growing in Asia and Latin America as well," says Takahiro Watanabe, Development Section Senior Manager.
LPWA is gaining more and more international attention, and specific applications include water and gas meter reading, distribution management by cloud-based position information from trucks, inventory control for retail outlets and vending machines, home security, and weather observations.
In some cases, LPWA is replacing Wi-Fi and cellular applications that had already been introduced in the market. Nevertheless, such implementations require the acceptance of LPWA characteristics whereby lower data transfer capability is a tradeoff for the low power consumption and the wide range reach. Harnessing of LPWA features should result in its utilization as a means for building new types of services that connect things which were previously not connected.
●Murata's strategy is to provide total support to customers, from certification to antenna design
There are various LPWA technologies existing in the market, such as Sigfox, LoRa, NB-IoT, Wi-SUN, DASH7, ZigBee, and Z-Wave, but the three seen as most probable to dominate are Sigfox, LoRa and NB-IoT. Sigfox and LoRa use a frequency band that does not require licensing (ISM band), while NB-IoT utilizes a frequency of the cellular network that requires licensing.
Sigfox and LoRa, both use a frequency not requiring a license. They can be considered as competitors, but it can also be said that they have a complementary relationship. Sigfox has a policy of allowing only one operating company per country, thus, the range of coverage depends on the efforts of that particular company. On the other hand, it easily provides connectivity for things that move in a wide area, such as a long-distance truck.
LoRa allows any company to establish a coverage area, but deployment across an entire country will be very challenging. A distribution company with business operations across the country would most possibly choose Sigfox, but the company with business concentrated in one specific location will likely select LoRa.
When speaking about the differences between Sigfox and LoRa, the fact that Sigfox has no download capability (unable to control the IoT device) is seen as a problem. This presents a legal problem in Japan, whereby receiving capability must also be present in the standard for domestic use. "We expect things to be resolved by the end of 2017," says Mr. Watanabe.
Murata is already mass producing LPWA wireless modules, however, the company will have collaborations with several business partners in order to expand the market, as Mr. Watanabe notes, "We think it is not enough to simply offer components."
(Photograph) Type ABZ (CMWX1ZZABZ), a LoRa compliant module from Murata
"It is true that Murata is in the business of selling wireless modules," states Mr. Watanabe, "But up until this point, customers have been familiar with wireless technology. LPWA is an essential part of IoT which is likely to attract diverse players, so we are expecting its utilization by various industries that have no linkage in this arena previously."
Mr. Sasaki adds, "One of Murata's strengths is our ability to offer total support on crucial areas, such as RF certification, software development, etc., in accordance with the regulations in the respective country or based on customer specific requirements. It is beyond simply supplying the parts. Murata is actively engaged in activities across the world, to accelerate the adoption of the new low-power wide area (LPWA) wireless networking technologies."
Antenna is an essential element for empowering a wireless module, but knowing how to mount that antenna on a product is a core competency," Mr. Watanabe points out. "When we consider the antenna for a customer product, we offer consultation on the most effective configuration, and in that way we are helping from their design phase."
●Importance of electronic components makers as we enter the IoT era in full force
At such, Murata's strategy for LPWA is not limited to just providing the components, but also encompasses wide-ranging support for the development and manufacturing of IoT devices that may number as many as 30 to 40 billion by 2020. This is not only about support alone, Murata's broad knowledge on electronics manufacturing is spread into every module that goes into mass production. An example of the result is the durability of Murata products.
It is assumed that LPWA communications module will be used in a data collection capacity for a long period of time after being mounted on a water meter, vending machine, or truck, for example. Hence, stable long-term operation will be required. Murata has the experience and knowledge to design electronic components that provide stable operation for long periods.
“With LPWA communications modules, we make use of the expertise gained in our development of Wi Fi and Bluetooth products. Durability for a single capacitor will depend on how it is being used, but with LPWA modules, we have to presume that it will be used over a long period. Therefore, our policy is to design drive capability that can last many years," says Mr. Watanabe.
Murata currently provides products and support services for Sigfox and LoRa, but it is moving forward in the same way for NB-IoT, which uses a cellular network. Since NB-IoT utilizes a cellular network that is already in operation, the reliability of the network itself is high, and this reliability is attracting much attention from businesses that have interest in LPWA. In line with the increasing interest in LPWA, Murata’s reputation as a specialist in wireless technology will continue to grow. Murata will provide the products and services for this new era.