Big range, little energy needed
It was in 2015 that Wienke Giezeman first came across the concept of the Long Range Wide Area Network. 'LoRaWAN', as it's known, is a networking technology that's ideal for the Internet of Things. Wienke saw its potential right away. "LoRaWAN is intended for equipment that doesn't need a permanent internet connection, but simply needs to communicate bundles of data every so often. It doesn't need much battery power or bandwidth, and offers excellent range. So it's great for things such as roads, lampposts and waste bins. Another big plus is that the network devices, or 'gateways', are very cheap to install." Wienke and his business partner Johan Stokking therefore hatched the idea of installing a global network of gateways. And The Things Network was born.
The Things Network began in Amsterdam. "In just six weeks, we had the whole city covered. Ten gateways were all we needed. The initiative got a lot of publicity, even featuring on Dutch TV's leading evening news programme. And we soon had people from all over the world signing up." In 2015, The Things Network was one of the first organisations to receive financial support from SIDN Fund. "We really appreciated their assistance. We'd only been going two months when we made our application, and the grant helped us get through the start-up phase. It also paid for a Kickstarter campaign." The crowdfunding drive led to a huge rise in the number of participants and gateways. The Things Network is now active in three hundred cities, spread across seventy countries, and has almost six thousand members.
The Things Network is not the only platform for the Internet of Things. Other technologies are available, many offered by commercial operators. "The difference between us and the rest is open access. All the software and hardware we use is open source. With The Things Network, the threshold to participation is very low; anyone can quickly get up and running. That promotes innovation and reduces the risk of lock-in: dependency on one manufacturer or technology. Our income comes from selling hardware and consultancy. We also provide management services: the management of the system."
For The Things Network, the aim is global coverage. Free access for everyone, everywhere. "We should manage that within five years. The applications currently being developed on the network will seed ideas, attracting other users. And that will lead to organic, sustainable growth." There's been no shortage of interest in The Things Network. "Pretty well all IT integrators are working on the Internet of Things. Existing network services are becoming commodities, which is squeezing profit margins. The Internet of Things is seen as a huge opportunity."
Applications for smart cities
It might not be apparent to the average consumer, but the Internet of Things already has numerous applications, says Wienke. "Amsterdam experiences drainage problems when hit by sudden downpours. So the Internet of Things is now being used to control smart water buffers. In Buenos Aires, there's a forest fire warning system based on the Internet of Things. Various cities have air or water quality monitoring systems, which trigger alerts when certain pollutant levels are reached. And a Dutch application points truckers to vacant parking places." Industrial use of LoRaWAN is on the rise as well. "The port of Amsterdam has installed equipment that monitors damage to the quays. Problems are automatically reported, so the authorities know straight away when and where maintenance is needed." For the public, the only sign of such applications is better or cheaper services from companies and government bodies. "Our current focus is the smart city. Applications for the smart home tend to use Bluetooth. We aren't ignoring that field, but it's not our priority at the moment."
Experts are predicting a worldwide total of twenty billion connected devices by 2020. However, before the Internet of Things can really take off, a lot of privacy issues need to be addressed. "If you walk down the street, anyone can see you. Is being observed by monitoring equipment just an extension of that, or not? Should people be allowed to opt out? And, if so, when and how? The existing legislation leaves too many questions like that unanswered. So we need a public debate. The Pirate Party and Bits of Freedom are currently the most vocal organisations. At The Things Network, we don't have a vested interest in a particular outcome, but we do want clarity. So we do want a debate. We have good relations with everyone active in this field."
Learn more at SIDN's Contact Day
Wienke Giezeman is one of the speakers at SIDN's Contact Day, which takes place in Utrecht on 1 December. Subjects he'll be talking about include the business opportunities that LoRaWAN offers hosters.