The place of Wi-Fi and the rise of LPWAN technologies

LPWAN or low power wide area networks represents a new wave of technologies. This has been coming for a while. The novelty consists in the plethora of devices working directly on these networks. They are generally sensors, tags, small data packet senders which don’t need large bandwidth. One other excellent advantage is the fact that LPWAN devices use little power. Therefore they can be powered for months if not years with a single battery and utilising low power solar installations is really useful.

If you do a search on the internet for any of the technologies available in this family you will find a real buzzing community. And the products keep coming. Furthermore, there is a huge number of city-wide networks being deployed and everyone is posting almost weekly a new signed agreement with a city or town.

It is natural then to ask: what is the future of traditional Wi-Fi networks and is there a role for them in the new emerging trends ?

I personally think that Wi-Fi has a pivotal role. Sure, you can use new low power networks to aggregate data from various sensors but there is a commercial reality. Many of the cities around the world have deployed in the past excellent Wi-Fi networks meant to cover high density areas and wide geographical spaces.  Installing new gateways is fine in a small area to collect information  from the surrounding sensor grid but carrying that information to the processing head end might be a commercial challenge.  This can be easily resolved by utilising existing infrastructure. A Wi-Fi link can connect gateways and nodes hundreds of metres away and even kilometres. There is no need for multiple hops. If there is nothing in between points other than a wide open space, then placing repeater nodes can be difficult.

Existing mesh networks already deployed in places like universities, campuses, industrial estates and even residential communities can quickly solve the data transport challenge. The investment is already in place and quite often operators of such networks are unaware of the spare capacity. It is therefore extremely simple for example to create an air quality monitoring, irrigation and water level monitoring system by utilising local sensors with localised LPWAN gateways. Once the basic data collection or control equipment is in place, the gateways can be then attached to the already installed Wi-Fi network. No need for expensive extra power outlets, more radio infrastructure or co-location fees.

Existing technologies are not , generally speaking, obsolete. Financial controllers and those who oversee investments will be very happy to re-use the systems in place while upgrading and increasing the data density for minimum cost.