As published by VDC Research, September 15, 2017
At the inaugural Mobile World Congress Americas trade show and conference (formerly the CTIA Wireless show), attendees wound their way around the ongoing construction at San Francisco’s Moscone Center to find an event notable smaller than its MWC mother event in Barcelona. Nevertheless, IoT-related products, services, and conference sessions were prominent and plentiful.
Some of the non-cellular IoT technologies and vendors on exhibit at the show are competing against and/or cooperating with the traditional cellular telecommunications industry from which the show originates. One such example is Senet (www.senetco.com), based not in Silicon Valley or any other technology hub, but in the quaint little port city of Portsmouth, NH. That company’s initial incarnation—starting in 2009—was as EnerTrac (www.enertrac.com), which built and operated a proprietary wide-area wireless network in the northeastern US. The network’s purpose was for communicating data from level monitoring sensors on oil and propane tanks, to enable fuel delivery companies (EnerTrac’s customers) to optimize their delivery schedules and truck routes. Over the ensuing several years, EnerTrac expanded its network to increasing regional areas of the US.
Meanwhile, in 2012, semiconductor supplier Semtech acquired the small French company Cycleo for the price of $5M, in what might be viewed years from now as one of the greatest bargains ever for a tech acquisition. Cycleo had developed the intellectual property for a new long-range wireless network technology which Semtech dubbed LoRa. Hence, Semtech set about to supply LoRa chipsets and license the IP, although the company does not itself build or operate any LoRa networks.
90 Degree Pivot
LoRa is essentially a proprietary standard, but it is nevertheless a standard which any vendor can license to build compatible devices and network components, and any operator can deploy into private or public networks. It didn’t take long for EnerTrac to realize a private LoRa network could also have public applications. In 2014, under then-CEO George Dannecker, EnerTrac changed its name to Senet (retaining the EnerTrac name for the oil and gas tank monitoring business unit). And in a major strategic pivot, Senet, as the first operator to deploy LoRa in the US, switched its network to the new technology and continued to further expand its footprint.
Within a year, the company went from solely supplying a very narrow vertical market niche to also being a broad horizontal network play. Today, Senet’s network covers more than 100,000 square miles.
In June 2017, Senet CEO Dannecker retired, and the company appointed telecommunications industry veteran Bruce Chatterley as its new CEO.
VDC met with Chatterley at MWC Americas, where he relayed to us his strategic vision for Senet going forward. Chatterley noted that the company was already offering to deploy LoRa networks and provide managed network services for IoT customers that want their own private or public LoRa networks. The first customer for the managed network services, publicly announced just two weeks after Chatterley came on board, is India’s SenRa (www.senraco.com).
The new strategy, however, goes two steps further. First, Senet can operate private networks as hybrid private/public networks. That is, a customer’s private network can be opened to public LoRa usage, similar to what Senet is doing with its own network. The hybrid network, in addition to serving its owner’s LPWAN communications needs, can also generate revenue for the owner, helping to defray the capital equipment and operating costs, and eventually becoming a profit center.
Second, and more interestingly, Chatterley sees a large-scale “LPWAN virtual network,” comprised collectively of all those local hybrid and public LoRa networks, in which Senet orchestrates the connectivity services such that any LoRa device could connect to any access point in the network at large, with Senet automatically billing the user and sending revenue to the appropriate network owner. Such a meta-network-of-networks could ultimately cover huge regions without any individual party incurring the brunt of the capital equipment expense. In theory, everybody in the LoRa ecosystem wins, including the users. (Which reminds us of a quotation variously attributed to Albert Einstein, Yogi Berra, and others: “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is.”
Senet’s 100,000 square mile network today covers just a small portion of the US. [The entire country is about 3.8 million square miles, or about 3.1 million excluding Alaska.] Chatterley told us that to deploy a LoRa network to cover the whole US would require capital expenditure of about $200M. That’s modest compared to the costs of deploying cellular coverage nationwide, because LoRa can cover longer distance so fewer tower sites are needed, and LoRa infrastructure equipment is relatively low cost. Nevertheless, $200M ain’t chump change, and Senet is a small company. The LPWAN virtual network avoids the Field of Dreams big gamble that “if you build it, they will come.” Numerous parties just build bits and pieces of it, and eventually it adds up to something approaching full coverage.
Chatterley also told us that Senet will be the first company to deploy devices with Semtech’s new ranging engine, which will improve the accuracy of location tracking for LoRa devices without needing GPS hardware or that technology’ requisite power consumption. Semtech representatives later told VDC the ranging function uses time-of-flight calculations in Semtech’s new SX1280 chip to listen in on the network chatter between other LoRa network devices and gateways, and measuring distances between nodes. If the position of a fixed gateway is known, for example, ranging could determine the location of devices communicating with the gateway with accuracy of 2 to 5 meters.
In summary, Senet has been leading the pack of LoRa implementers since the dawn of LoRa, and appears poised to continue doing so well into the future.
For more on LPWAN technology see VDC’s research report LPWANs and 5G Technologies for IoT Wireless Communications.