Mobile World Congress Americas 2018 (#MWCA18) recently concluded, showcasing the latest and greatest in wireless technology innovations and market-ready solutions for connectivity and the rapidly growing Internet of Things (IoT). As the excitement from #MWCA18 settled, we sat down with Alistair Fulton, VP, IoT and Wireless Product Marketing for Semtech’s Wireless and Sensing Products Group, to get his perspective on what to expect from Semtech and its LoRa® devices and wireless radio frequency technology (LoRa Technology) in the future, plus gain insights on the evolution and future of the LoRaWAN® protocol, discuss ideal LoRa Technology use cases, and how Semtech is working to enable IoT solution availability for businesses. This blog is the first half of a two-part series. Jump to part two now.
What is the most significant change you’ve observed at Mobile World Congress events over time?
Over the last few years, I think MWC has gotten much more focused on IoT in general. The most interesting thing to me is the enormous range and diversity of IoT solutions that are actually delivering real business value and solving real business problems. There's a distinct shift from a few years ago where, outside that part of the market which has long deployed connected device solutions before the term IoT was in use, customers were much more focused on prototyping to understand the potential value these solutions could create and to understand different technology choices. Today, that has shifted to a much greater emphasis on developing and delivering production solutions that are seen by customers as increasingly key to being able to compete by enabling better customer experience, better product quality, or reduced cost of manufacturing and delivery. In parallel, you see a significant maturation in the range and quality of solutions available today, where providers are designing cost effective solutions that meet the exacting “carrier grade” performance requirements of modern industrial, B2B and B2C use cases.
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What are the challenges for the IoT industry to solve right now?
Despite what I think are huge advances in the range and quality of solutions available today, it is still too complex and time consuming for many customers to develop IoT solutions that meet the specific needs of their business or their customer base.
Part of this issue is that there is still too much focus among providers in the IoT space on the technology, and not enough focus on delivering more pre-configured or easily customizable solutions to specific customer use cases that drive clear return on investment (ROI). In short, we need to put ourselves in the place of our customers, adopt a more customer-driven product development process, and really focus on delivering tailored solutions to the problems they have today.
There are already a number of solution providers in the LoRa Technology ecosystem doing this today - companies like myDevices for example, who have incredible traction for the simple, easy-to-implement, turn-key solutions it is delivering to cold chain monitoring and smart building use cases. That tells you that customers, including some very large enterprises, are looking for off-the-shelf solutions that solve enough of a problem and deliver enough real ROI without requiring them to develop deep technical skills in either Edge hardware, radio layer or backend data ingestion and analytics.
The other part of this issue is interoperability. As an industry we must ensure we are delivering solutions which work together regardless of the underlying technology or solution provider. We must enable our customers to easily integrate different solutions to provide a total answer to their business problem – whether that be optimizing throughput in a factory or mine, managing every function of a multi-occupancy dwelling or single family home, or tracking assets as they flow through a multi-party supply chain. As with any technology-driven industry in its early phases, one supplier’s differentiation can become another’s customer lock-in and, if the past decades of the software industry have taught us anything, it’s that customers do not want lock-in, but rather want to select the best components and gap fillers to create an end-to-end solution for their business or their customers.
This issue is often exacerbated in the earlier phases of a technology by the fact that many providers are still in the earlier stages of growth and so you have situations where multi-billion dollar global enterprises are taking dependencies on startup scale providers who, despite having developed brilliant solutions to a customer’s problem, still represent a risk to business continuity should they fail and their solution not be portable to an alternative provider. It’s also made more complex by the simple fact that for most customers in the enterprise and industrial spaces, IoT isn’t really new at all – they’ve been solving the sorts of problems we talk about in the context of IoT for decades using solutions based on existing technologies to connect devices and processes, ingest data and drive better decision making. Having spent a lot of time myself developing solutions for industrial customers, most recently with Hitachi, I can tell you that every factory you walk into already has a wealth of connected device solutions in place, and integrating with those existing solutions (as opposed to replacing) is non-negotiable if you’re going to demonstrate rapid ROI.
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What is it about LoRa Technology that makes IoT solutions more realistic and attainable for businesses?
Today, a lot of the discussion around LoRa Technology focuses on the inherently efficient combination of long range and low power that LoRa-based solutions provide as a low power wide area network (LPWAN) technology. While those are key characteristics which make a wide range of customer use cases financially and operationally viable in a way that other more expensive or more power hungry solutions don’t, it’s only part of the value that LoRa-based solutions deliver.
Ultimately, customers are looking for flexibility and the ability to control their own destiny. Here I think LoRa Technology stands out due to the flexibility of public and private deployment models. Network providers can offer a range of different business and operational models to meet their customers’ needs in a way that the cost of licensed spectrum doesn’t allow, including the ability for customers to deploy their own network if that makes sense. Additionally, the future-proofing of the multi-vendor, open standard model of LoRaWAN, plus the inherent security of LoRa-enabled solutions, both at the network- and applications-level, and the efficient geolocation capabilities that LoRa Technology enables, creates a set of solutions which are more affordable and give businesses the flexibility to adapt through growth and change.
One could argue that I am a little biased in my view, after all I joined Semtech because I personally believe that LoRa Technology is the solution to a wide range of development and deployment challenges that I’ve encountered in my career in the IoT space. However, anyone can see the impact of these strengths in action today in the rich and rapidly growing ecosystem of solution providers that are emerging around LoRa Technology, meeting the needs of customers in new and creative ways, and the rapid deployment of LoRaWAN-based networks that are being developed to service the growing demand for ubiquitous connectivity that these solutions drive.
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Do these qualities necessarily make LoRa Technology a better IoT solution platform than others?
Again, putting any inherent bias I may have aside, I don’t think it's for technology providers to dictate what the right answer is for a customer. Our job as technology providers is to enable a range of flexible and interoperable solutions that providers can leverage to create the right answer for their customer’s problem. I think the reality in the IoT space is that, despite the massive adoption we’re seeing today, we’re still at the very beginning of what promises to be an enormous transformation of the way that we live and work.
I think it’s also too early to call one platform better than another and, again, given the need for interoperability and flexibility, I’m not even sure the idea of there being one IoT platform or technology that is better than all the rest is really that relevant anymore.
To me providing tools and technologies that solve meaningful problems for our customers is really the key and, given the still early stage of much of what we’re discussing, the only way to ensure we continue to do that is by listening to our customers, who in turn are listening to their customers and delivering what they need.
Our customers and partners tell us they want flexibility, the ability to choose whatever solution works for the job at hand, and the ability to integrate with their existing solutions - and they want do that in an affordable and efficient way.
This is the first installment of a two-part blog series. Read part two of Alistair's blog here.
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