Did your Smart City choose the right network?

The importance of wireless in smart cities, and why LPWAN is the clear and obvious solution.

For those of you who aren’t familiar, smart cities are the intended end project of all of the ‘smart’ projects being floated all around the world, either on small scales or in a few really large scale integrated projects like in Dubai and Singapore. Smart cities aim to automate large parts of everyday life, and to make extensive use of the ‘internet of things (IoT) to help those automated systems actually understand what is going on in the physical world – the realm of full trash bins, crowded sidewalks and refrigerators distressingly empty of whatever it was we want for breakfast.

If you’d like to know more, I just happen to have written a larger piece about exactly that. Go on, read it. I’ll wait.

Why Wireless?

wire-spaghettiSimply put, no one wants to live in the tangled mess (or the infinitely cable-tied techno-utopia) that lurks behind your company’s server racks. If you didn’t get that reference, you need to educate yourself. Go to your nearest IT person and ask to see ‘the blue spaghetti behind the servers’. They’ll take you on an amazing journey.

But really, there is just no physical way to connect the soon-to-be millions of IoT enabled devices in even a small sized smart city with wires. Every street light, every pressure plate on the paths, and every other sensor or state tracker would need a wire.

Worse, the most useful IoT devices need to be attached to things that move! Smart Cities need to track individual dumpsters and wheelie bins, individual pallets, and cargo containers, perhaps even individual containers of fruit juice in your fridge.

Can you imagine all of that as part of a wired network? I don’t think the Earth produces that much copper in 100 years, just for a start.

But surely it can’t be that easy. Just throwing the word ‘wireless’ at the problem won’t fix it.

That’s true. There are several good reasons why standard wireless networks and protocols just won’t work either.

First, standard wireless has a cripplingly short range. In the best of conditions, a Wi-Fi transmitter has to be within a hundred feet of the receiver. 4G works out to around 16 miles, again under nearly ideal conditions. The thing is, a modern city is about as far from ‘ideal conditions’ for wireless networks as you can get. Unless every house, every small business and every floor of every large building is to be equipped with a ‘civic infrastructure router’, it could never work. For that matter, the added networks would drastically increase a problem called data collision!

Second, standard wireless solutions simply consume too much power. IoT devices for a smart city need to be small, they need to be maintenance free, and they need to ‘just work’ for months at a minimum between charges. Ideally, they’ll work for a year or so, then be recycled or replaced. Imagine the power your phone would use connecting to Wi-Fi or 4G for a year between charges! That’s not what Tesla is building those 300-pound batteries for.

Third, standard Wi-Fi networks just aren’t configured to handle thousands of different devices at once (or 4G to handle 100s of thousands), and that’s what each node would have to handle, even if the networks were limited to current sizes. Most IoT devices aren’t ‘smart’ enough to check that their data packets went through, either, so every time there was a ‘data collision’ or device 22394 wasn’t actually connected because it was 3rd in the queue for resources, the data would just be lost.

So, does that mean wireless isn’t the answer? No.

Not at all. Wireless is the only practical way to approach the issue, and it is the solution actual smart cities are using. They just aren’t using 4G or even 5G or Wi-Fi. They are using Low-Power wide Area Networks (LPWANs) to connect entire towns and whole sections of major cities into IoT-specific wireless networks. Amazingly, they are doing it in a practical, low maintenance and commercially viable manner, too!

LPWANs connect tomorrow’s smart cities.
How do we know? Because they are doing the job today. Cities looking to deploy massive LPWAN solutions face the problem of data collision. MXC solves this by incorporating blockchain into LoRAWAN solutions, so I’ll be using that as the primary example.

OK, break that down for me – ‘practical’?

Practicality can be broken down into smaller parts. First is the necessity for truly large IoT networks. LPWAN networks have been proven to connect IoT devices reliably over networks covering tens of square miles, and the potential size is increasing steadily as the technology matures.

Next is the issue of data collisions. The LoRAWAN / MXProtocol combo easily fixes this. It incorporates cutting edge data collision protection from the beginning, governing the priority of different IoT traffic in a complex and balanced way, delaying some signals rather than losing them. As to how it chooses which signals to delay, I address that below under ‘commercial viability’ – essentially, it monetizes network resources, allowing the users to set their own data priorities.

After that comes security. This is one of the ways the blockchain aspect of the technology becomes important by providing a complete ledger of M2M communication passing between LPWAN enabled devices owned by different people. Of course – under most of the systems being developed, all of the data on the network is also encrypted.

Even more importantly, some of these developing solutions support 2-way connections with IoT devices. A system like that could track lost packets and send a ‘resend’ command. It could also reschedule individual devices’ transmission schedules to smooth demand peaks on the network over the long term. Note, the systems themselves do this, not an army of human operators.

And how is this technology ‘low maintenance’?

That largely comes down to power requirements. All LPWAN solutions are substantially lower power than Wi-Fi or 4G solutions. They were designed with the IoT in mind, and support networks of thousands or millions of discrete devices which run on stored power for up to ten years at a time. Even if the networks themselves don’t become more effective, every generation of IoT devices becomes a little more power efficient and holds a larger charge. As a result, this is a rare example of a solution which gets better as it ages!

In a few of these next-generation systems, the network infrastructure is handled commercially by 3rd parties. These operators keep the networks up and running in order to keep their income stream (and typically to run their own IoT devices) functioning. Again, more on that below.

And now the hard part – ‘commercially viable’?

OK, so here is the really impressive bit. A few of these next-generation systems have truly innovative commercial implications. Once again I’m going to refer the more technically adept to one of the prime examples – MXProtocol’s white paper.

Our system uses blockchain to monetise M2M transactions in a shared LPWAN network. MXProtocol uses the MXC – a utility token – to facilitate paying for access to whatever LPWAN network is most convenient for your IoT devices. Not necessarily the closest, either. These networks cover huge swathes of the city or countryside, and your devices are likely to be in range of 2 or more hubs at any one time.

So, in this LPWAN sharing economy, each IoT device’s data transmissions have a sort of ‘bid’ attached to it. Let’s say User A is willing to pay 1/100th of a penny to get the data through on a priority basis, perhaps. Maybe User B has ‘bid’ 1/500th of a penny, and a User C has bid 1/20th of a penny for truly high priority data, such as a command to unlock a door or something else human-facing. If all three devices are demanding limited network capacity at once, the protocol sends the high priority data (User C) through first, then the second highest then the third. Everyone can control the priority of their data and only pays for priority when they need it.

When priority prices get too high, well, that means there is profit in opening up a new network! The system regulates itself, whereas demand for the network increases, so does the supply.

So now you see why Low power wide area networks using blockchain for data security and monetization are the solutions of choice for some of the latest smart City projects all around the world. It’s an exciting time for the industry and an exciting time for solutions like the MXProtocol.

I can’t wait to see what happens this year!