After a Quick Germination, The Things Network Takes Root Slowly

A new partnership, announced Monday, should put the company back on track for shipping gateways and nodes to backers worldwide.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Nov 08, 2016

In May 2015, Wienke Giezeman was running a small IT shop after selling his video-rental company to a publishing firm. Then, one day, he walked into a hacker space in Amsterdam, where he lives. "Someone showed me this [radio]," he says. "It had a range of six miles. The gateways cost around $1,000. You could connect up to 10,000 [radio] devices to a gateway. [The radios] use low bandwidth and have a good battery life."

This technology is a type of low-power wide-area network (LPWAN) called LoRa. IBM and chipmaker Semtech co-developed the LoRa specification and introduced it to the marketplace, along with an industry group called the LoRa Alliance, in early 2015. The technology is designed to support a network of remotely deployed devices that transmit small packets of data over long distances, while consuming little power. LoRa operates in the 868 and 900 MHz unlicensed ISM bands in Europe and in the United States, respectively, and transmits data at a rate of 0.3 kbps to 50 kbps over distances of up to 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) in rural areas in cities.

A LoRa sensor
"I was totally amazed by the technology," Giezeman says. "I [realized I] would only need 10 gateways to cover the whole city of Amsterdam."

Within a few months, Giezeman and a partner, Johan Stokking, had founded The Things Network, a nonprofit foundation that aims to promote and support the deployment of LoRa networks that would be available to both individuals and commercial parties around the world. The group's first endeavor was to create a LoRa network, or a LoRaWAN (LoRa wide-area network), across Amsterdam. It succeeded in establishing this LoRaWAN within six weeks, Giezeman says, after finding 10 different companies, each of which paid for a single gateway. These companies include both small local IoT startups and large corporations, including consultancies KPMG and Deloitte.

The Things Network also worked with various stakeholders in Amsterdam to illustrate how this public IoT network could be used. For example, one startup offered to place water sensors with integrated LoRa radios and GPS receivers in private boats moored in the city's canals. In the event of a leak or a large rain event, small boats are sometimes submerged. Under the pilot program, sensors triggered alerts to a boat-maintenance company that automatically dispatched a crew to the location of a boat in danger of being submerged.

The Things Network grew quickly, and within two months, public LoRaWAN networks were also emerging in cities across the global, including Boston, Buenos Aires, Kochi, São Paulo and Sydney. But among the individuals and small groups building out those networks, the universal complaint was that the gateways needed to be more affordable and easier to install, and they also wanted help in creating and evaluating use cases.

So Giezeman and Stokking decided to launch The Things Industries, a for-profit organization that creates open-source LoRaWAN back-end applications and generates revenue by providing consulting services, as well as conducting workshops and hackathons. The Things Industries is also a member of the LoRa Alliance.

To address the call for more affordable and easy-to-use hardware, The Things Network launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds needed to scale the production of LoRa gateways, LoRa development boards (which backers can use for prototyping) and battery-powered, weatherproof LoRa network nodes with integrated temperature, movement and light sensors, as well as an indicator light and a push button. The purpose of the light and button would depend on a particular application, but the light provides input to the user and the button allows a user a means of communicating something to the network.

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