Everything you need to know about LoRa

History of LoRa

LoRa got started in Grenoble, France in 2009 through the collaboration of two friends who wanted to develop a long range radio that consumed small amounts of power. Along with another collaborator they formed a company called Cycleo who set out to develop LoRa, which is simply short for ‘Long Range’. Their intention was to develop and sell their designs to chip manufacturers, their target market being the utility metering industry. In 2012 Cycleo were acquired by Semtech, a US manufacturer of semiconductors. In collaboration with the founders of Cycleo, Semtech produced two transceiver chips for use in user equipment (IoT) devices and others for network gateways and routers. Along with the hardware, they created a proprietary networking protocol, defining the mechanisms by which devices talk to the network and how radio channels are managed. In 2015 the LoRa Alliance was founded and the network protocol was named LoRaWAN. The goals of the LoRa Alliance are to “support and promote the global adoption of LoRaWAN standards by ensuring interoperability of all LoRaWAN products and technologies.”(source, LoRa Alliance). 

LoRa Alliance members include Cisco, IBM, Amazon, BT, Orange, KPN and NTT. 

Whereas Sigfox build only public networks, either themselves or through licensees, the LoRa Alliance strategy is to provide a standardised set of networking equipment with which both public and private networks can be built. 

As of March 2021 there were some 178 million devices connected to over 140 public and private LoRa networks globally. 

Long Range Technology

LoRa networks use the same unlicensed frequency bands as Sigfox, these are based around 868 MHz in Europe and 915 MHz in North America. LoRa uses these frequencies in a different way to the Sigfox UNB (Ultra Narrow Band) approach where devices send and receive on a narrow 100 Hz wide channel. Messages on LoRa networks use a spread spectrum modulation technique known as CSS (Chirp Spread Spectrum) operating in bandwidth channels of 125 kHz or 500 kHz for uplink messages and 500 kHz for downlink. CSS modulation allows for higher bit rates than Sigfox, typically 25 kbps – 50 kbps, but slightly lower than those for NB-IoT. LoRa networks are built in a star topology with customer devices communicating with an intermediary device called a gateway which concentrates user traffic for transmission to the network server. LoRa gateways are not expensive, typically £1k - £2K for a carrier-grade device designed to operate outdoors (IP67 rated) on the roof of a building. A LoRa gateway working in an office environment can be purchased for around £100. The range of a gateway is 2km-5km (urban) and up to 15 km (suburban), slightly less than Sigfox in an urban environment and about half the range of Sigfox for suburban locations. In that respect LoRa has a disadvantage when compared to Sigfox, although the low cost of the gateways allows for more numerous deployments of them. LoRa operates fully bi-directionally  unlike Sigfox which is constrained in its network to device capability.

There can be multiple LoRa networks within a city, both public and private, so to build a private LoRa network within a building is relatively inexpensive, although unlike a public network the private network owner has to fund the operating costs. Unlike Sigfox networks the actual data rates on LoRa depends on distance between the end-point device and the gateway. 

In terms of security, LoRa supports end to end encryption using the AES128 algorithm.

Benefits of Using LoRa and the LoRa Ecosystem

The LoRa Alliance Catalogue gives customers a big range of IoT devices to choose from.

Standardisation around the Semtech SX127x series chipsets has allowed Alliance members to build their devices around those, with certainty of connection to any LoRa network, public or private. Although cheaper to build than cellular NB-IoT hardware, at around $10 they are more expensive than a Sigfox module which is typically $5. LoRa gives the benefit of low cost connectivity with long range when compared to technologies such as Wifi and Zigbee, excellent in-building penetration and very long battery life. Mobile network operators such as Orange, Swisscom, KPN, Proximus and SK Telecom have all deployed LoRa public networks alongside their cellular IoT offerings. Application developers considering using LoRa for their IoT deployment can download the LoRa specification documents.

Getting on Board – Device Provisioning

Public LoRa networks provide full instructions for manual onboarding of IoT devices.

Here are the procedures for automated onboarding of LoRa devices in volume using QR codes

Typical LoRa Applications

Application Benefit Solution Providers
Controlled access to waste recycling facilities Public and employee safety. Iioote and Rambo AB
Fuel Tank monitoring Optimised delivery and collection routes, saving time and money. FULLUP
Supply Chain & Logistics 40% improvement in ETA, 30% reduction in Opex. SmartMakers
Smart Parking Reduced driving time, Co2 reductions, improved capacity utilisation. Sensors connected to a mobile phone application route drivers to a vacant parking space. Smart Parking Systems

Battery Life

Battery life on LoRa networks is not so predictable as it is for Sigfox where the slow transmit rate (100 bps) within the duty cycle rules in Europe limit the number of messages to 140 per day. The higher speeds possible with LoRa mean that the device can be active less of the time while sending its message, so in practical terms the battery life for a typical IoT application requiring power autonomy is similar to that of Sigfox.
Example Application Messages/Day Expected Battery Life*
Alarm Notifications 1-5 10 years
Low Use Sensors 5-25 7 years
High Use Sensors 25-100 5 years
Location/Tracking >100 2 years
*Using same size battery in each application case. When deploying an IoT sensor device the battery can be the most costly component. Simply using a bigger battery can extend battery life but make the total cost of deployment prohibitive. The assumption here based on typical use cases is a battery of 3v and 1,000 mAh capacity.

In Summary

In terms of the number of IoT devices connected, LoRa is the most successful unlicensed wireless technology. However, a large proportion of connected devices are on private networks. The number connected on publicly available networks is not clear, although LoRa Alliance member The Things Industries report 55% of gateway shipments in 2020 were to public network operators, indicating that around half the claimed 178 million connections are from paying customers. 

For the customers wanting to connect their devices rather than build and operate their own network, you can find all the information on public LoRa networks.

Whereas Sigfox is more limited in its use cases and has positioned itself as complimentary to cellular networks the higher data rates of LoRa puts the technology into direct competition with the mobile operators as they roll out NB-IoT. Most use cases for LoRa are within the scope of NB-IoT which offers lower latency, better security and slightly higher data rates than LoRa. Where very low power consumption is the most important criteria LoRa is a better option. 

In January 2020 the LoRa Alliance announced 2.4 GHz LoRa, a technology competing with Wifi but with a range of up to 300 metres in free space. Semtech transceivers were already available and ecosystem partners have incorporated 2.4 GHz cards into their sub GHz gateways. This technology allows location based services with a sub 5 metre accuracy to be deployed on LoRa networks, the advantage over traditional GNSS (satellite) being much lower power consumption and simpler, cheaper electronics. This development opens up a big market for tracking packages, pallets or any goods in transit where no power supply is available.

The momentum LoRa has gained over the last 5 years suggests it is here to stay and will remain a credible technology for IoT connectivity.