Virtually free crowd-sourced IoT networks on the horizon
The not-for-profit foundation has just launched a kickstarter campaign to build the basic elements (LoRa-based gateways and sensor nodes) at BOM cost (bill-of-materials), promising to share as open-source all the necessary code and circuit schematics for makers and entrepreneurs to build their own bricks and add them to the network.
By doing so, The Things Network’s Founder and initiator of the project Wienke Giezeman hopes that small businesses who may want to set up an IoT network on the cheap, for their own needs, will effectively contribute to a growing IoT network open for anyone to use. The foundation is developing automatic network management algorithms so that every new gateway can be discovered and configured in real-time as the crowd-sourced network grows, building redundancy in densely networked areas while increasing data throughput across reduced communication distances.
When asked about the reliability of such a decentralized network versus competing IoT infrastructures being setup and maintained by network operators over the world, Giezeman makes an analogy with the Linux movement, well documented, strong and reliable although it is decentralized.
"If you have thousands of individual users, from consumers to small businesses to city organizers adding their brick to the network, all for different purposes, you end up with a lot of built-in redundancy that naturally compensates for eventual drop-outs when a gateway is not maintained or taken out of the network" he says.
Co-founder and Tech Lead Johan Stokking told us more about the actual implementation of such a crowd-sourced IoT network. The Things Gateway put forward by the foundation does not discriminate between the data it collects from the nodes, it relies on an agent-based infrastructure to pass-on the data to the foundation’s cloud server or to a private router if this is how the gateway has been setup.
But even a router at a company’s premises could see when the data is not aimed at the company’s business and would then pass it on to The Things Network foundation (and vice-versa), where brokers would discover the data and make decisions on where to route it. For each node, the data is end-to-end encrypted, nor the gateway or the broker can decrypt it, only the application handler that acts on behalf of the application can decrypt the data associated to any given node (for any number of nodes registered by the application developer).
One gateway will only set you back 200 euros, about a fifth of what would typically cost today’s commercial LoRa implementations, while being easy to install by just anyone. It connects to the cloud through a WiFi or Ethernet connection and includes a GPS chip to determine the gateway’s location and node’s location later. It can serve up to 60,000 nodes within a radius up to 10km according to the rules and guidelines for using The Things Network. The foundation says it has been working with Semtech and has made extensive simulation models to define these rules.
For 40 euros, the foundation is also putting forward The Things Uno, what they describe as an Arduino Uno with LoRaWAN connectivity, compatible with Arduino IDE and existing shields. The unit will ship pre-loaded with the foundation’s open source LoRa library also freely available on GitHub.
At 60 euros, The Things Node completes the Kickstarter offering, packing a movement sensor, a light sensor, a temperature sensor, a button and an RGB light in a waterproof casing with three AAA batteries for a year’s worth of operation.
Although the foundation is providing data routing and hosting services in what it calls a neutral location, it does not plan to deploy its own network.
"If a company wants to rely on maintained network infrastructure, then it may want to contribute money to the foundation to guarantee coverage for the area it operates in, we would work with an integrator company that could operate the network for them", says Stokking.
But according to him, the cost of network installation is so low that this may not even be a viable business model for would-be IoT network operators. In fact, Stokking believes that eventually, all IoT communications will be free.
"Communications is something for which traditionally, network operators have been charging monthly fees. We are disrupting this model as anyone could leverage the free bandwidth of installed gateways".
"IoT network operators may be bragging about their coverage, because in their mind set, it is all about charging recurrent fees. We provide a free alternative, using similar technology but a crowd-sourced model." explained Stokking.
As for a nation-wide service, what sort of service level can you guarantee? They often get asked. "We can’t guarantee coverage everywhere, because this IoT network is community-driven", admits Stokking, but again according to the co-founder, every new use-case is an opportunity for network expansion, and eventually, such an open-source movement could spread beyond the capacity of commercial operators.
Since it started to publicize its crowd-sourced internet of things data network (covering the entire city of Amsterdam within weeks with only 10 gateways), the foundation has had many backers ready to set up city-level IoT networks (across 36 countries and over 130 cities, from the last count).
With still over a week to left to run, the Kickstarter campaign has already reached past its 150,000 euros goal, and the foundation has just established a joint-venture with a hardware company to manufacture the base products in volume, Stokking told eeNews Europe.
Visit The Things Network at thethingsnetwork.org