IoT: Enabling the IoT network

This article first appeared in Enterprise, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 12, 2018 - November 18, 2018.
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While politicians and corporations are busy discussing the Internet of Things (IoT) and Industry Revolution 4.0 (IR4.0), one company has been quietly laying the groundwork for it to happen.

Xperanti IoT (M) Sdn Bhd is the first nationwide licensed IoT network operator in Malaysia. Since receiving its licence last year, the company has covered 80% of the nation’s population with its Low-Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN), which can be used to power IoT.

Xperanti is also the exclusive Malaysian partner of Sigfox, the global LPWAN operator active in 45 countries.

“We started working with a company called edotco, which provides towers for other mobile operators. We leveraged these towers to go nationwide very quickly and effectively.

“In Sarawak and Sabah, we have covered all the ports, cities and airports. The deployment will continue until we achieve 95% population coverage and densification — this is the Sigfox governance we follow,” says Vicks Kanagasingam, chief operating officer of Xperanti.

Xperanti set up base stations — devices that connect to IoT devices — on the telecommunications towers. At any time, the devices will be communicating with at least three base stations to ensure robust connectivity.

“We are doing this quickly because we want to support the government’s IR4.0 initiative. Some of us are afraid that it would be too messy to embrace IR4.0 but Sigfox’s technology allows us to start small, using IoT to collect data, understand their business, do some analytics and then embrace other IR4.0-enabling technologies,” says Vicks, who has 24 years of experience in the telecoms industry. He started out as an engineer in Binariang Bhd (later Maxis Communications Bhd) helping to set up the infrastructure for the mobile network.

“I set up my own start-up called IoT Integrator Sdn Bhd last year. The goal was to build a solution stack to bridge the digital divide and help Malaysian start-ups go global. The founder of Xperanti, Nallen Singhe, is a good friend of mine and we worked together in Maxis. We merged and now my job is to take this company global,” says Vicks.

Last year, Sigfox identified Nallen’s company as its exclusive Malaysian partner; recognising the opportunities in the technology, Khazanah Nasional Bhd also invested in Sigfox that year, becoming a minority stakeholder in the French company.


A simple solution

According to research published in the ICT Express journal in January, LPWAN has emerged as a connectivity solution for IoT devices instead of conventional mobile networks because LPWAN has a low bandwidth and consumes less energy. It has a longer range as well. These characteristics fit the requirements of many IoT applications.

In particular, Vicks observes that LPWAN is a practical and sustainable choice for IoT applications that attach sensors onto non-powered assets — such as drains, trolleys and doors — to perform simple tasks.

He cites the example of a sensor that can monitor manholes on the road. It will notify authorities when the manholes pop open after a heavy downpour, causing water to overflow from the sewer.

“High bandwidth connections require more power. Imagine if I were to put a device on a manhole. It needs to be powered, but where do I get the power from? And I do not need high bandwidth here. I am not streaming videos, I just want to know whether it is open or closed. This is why something low-powered with low bandwidth fits the purpose,” Vicks says.

LPWAN is also useful for places with weak mobile coverage. “There are areas with no mobile coverage but there is Sigfox coverage because it does not require as much bandwidth and the radius is longer. One base station for GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) usually covers 1km to 5km on average. Our range is from 10km to 50km and it does not require a lot of power,” he says.

In fact, the sensors can be powered by batteries that last for at least five years.

In terms of security, the size of the data transferred is so small that if anyone were to hack the LPWAN, they would only get encrypted numbers that do not make sense.

“It’s just a number that does not tell you about the asset because the translation happens on the IoT platform on the customer’s premises. It has been around for 9 or 10 years and there has been no incidence of hacking into a LPWAN,” Vicks says.

LPWAN could be an attractive choice for small and medium enterprises (SME) that just want a simple IoT solution. Vicks brings up the example of telematics devices that are attached to vehicles to help companies manage their fleets.

“The IoT device has to be plugged into the vehicle battery and while it offers complex analysis of the driver’s behaviour and asset movement, it also comes with a high price tag.

“A lot of this information is superfluous anyway. Many SMEs just want to know where their driver is, so they can let their customer know.” And so, Vicks says, they can use LPWAN to just track the asset, cutting down the cost of the service.

Vicks says Sigfox’s devices can range from RM100 to RM300 (compared with conventional fleet management solutions that can cost up to RM800 a month) depending on the use case and complexity. “We can range from RM10 to RM45 a year for the managed IoT network connectivity subscription, depending on the use case,” he says.

LPWAN can be the springboard for companies to eventually adopt more complicated IoT solutions. The first step could be to monitor non-powered assets. There is a massive demand for technology that can monitor non-powered assets, Vicks points out, although most of the assets currently monitored are powered, such as cars and machines.

But non-powered assets such as wheelchairs and oxygen tanks in hospitals often go missing, and containers on trucks can be costly to lose.

A manufacturing plant could attach sensors to bundles of cables and tools to track those assets. “We are building a business case for all these companies. When you monitor your assets, you can get savings. It is the first step and investing (in automation) is the next.”

But for IoT, it is not all about LPWAN. There are some complex solutions such as smart security that require high bandwidth connections, in which case Xperanti will work with mobile operators.

“For example, we have clients who have remote sites that are fenced. They are thinking of putting CCTV cameras but it costs a lot of money. So we suggest they consider a hybrid model where we put in motion sensors so if someone moves the fence, only one or two cameras will switch on and point in that direction,” Vick says.

Then, the company can use artificial intelligence to determine whether the culprit is human or animal and if human, whether an employee or otherwise. “That is the high bandwidth connection. The low one, powers the sensor,” says Vicks.


Using Sigfox to go global

Sigfox is not the only provider of LPWAN. There are other players such as LoRA WAN (Long Range Wide Area Network), which is being tested by edotco Group Sdn Bhd, Atilze Digital Sdn Bhd, Malaysia Digital Economy Corp and Telekom Malaysia. There is also NB-IoT, which is a standard based on licensed cellular networks. Maxis announced in September that it would be trialling NB-IoT for businesses and the public sector.

Vicks chose Sigfox out of other providers because it has a global network compared to LoRa, which is more local. Sigfox has a host of partners globally who have already created IoT devices for the network, and these devices can be shared by everyone within the Sigfox LPWAN network. This also means that Malaysian start-ups who create IoT devices for the Sigfox network may promote their products globally through this platform, he points out.

“This is actually done by many start-ups in other countries. Two years ago in Singapore, when they introduced Sigfox, there was this guy doing pest management who had to find out where rodents were. So he put some motion sensors underground, monitored the movement of rodents and after six months, started building a data model.

“When I met this guy, he told me he could even tell where the rodents were hanging out, where their nest was, how they spent their time and the speed they were moving at. That way, they could catch them faster,” Vicks says.

This pest management company, Ratsense, began selling its solution in Europe and Australia. “I want to make Malaysia a platform for start-ups to go into IoT like this guy, and go global,” Vicks says. According to the Sigfox Partner Network website, there are currently 499 products available.

Another advantage is that Sigfox users can use global roaming without additional charges. For instance, Vicks says Sigfox has a global agreement with Michelin tyres, which produces costly industrial tyres. “They put Sigfox devices to track the tyre when it arrives. Malaysia is the distribution hub for Southeast Asia, so when the tyre arrives, we know where it is and where it goes,” Vicks says.

Part of Xperanti’s goal is to create an ecosystem of partners who can build up IoT capabilities in the country. It has strategic partners such as academic institutions and government agencies and technology partners, which are the device makers, application developers as well as big data scientists.

In addition, it has system incubators that bring solutions together as well as value-added partners that specialise in specific sectors such as agriculture, smart building and logistics.

According to Vicks, Xperanti is working on a couple of pilot projects across various industries. In July, it signed an agreement with Malaysia Airports Holdings Bhd (MAHB) to implement IoT solutions.

“When we engaged with MAHB, we found that it had a lot of assets on the ground that were non-powered (trolleys and containers) — which MAHB needed to track. We have case studies in Europe that show that using Sigfox can reduce the time taken to get all the stuff together. And once the plane lands, you can monitor the performance of the conveyor belts so there is no downtime,” he says.

Vicks says for this quarter, its focus is on building partnerships. “Next year will be the year of IR4.0 and I believe IoT is going to play a big role in it. It should start with the economic institutions and private sector. Do not wait for the government,” he says.


The possibilities of IoT
Xperanti Iot (M) Sdn Bhd is focused on six sectors: utilities, manufacturing, oil and gas, logistics, agriculture and smart cities. Its smart cities solutions also include smart buildings and smart kampungs.

“We have simple solutions to monitor water and air quality in the rural areas,” says Vicks Kanagasingam, chief operating officer of Xperanti.

An example of a smart building Internet-of-Things (IoT) device would be a sensor attached to a door that can detect if it is left open. If the door is open, the device can then connect with the air conditioner and adjust the temperature accordingly. With the Low-Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) technology, the sensors can be powered with just batteries. When the batteries are low in power, they can send a notification to the maintenance team to replace them.

Other examples would be sensors attached to pipes to monitor leaks, probes on drains to detect overflow, and sensors with gyrometers on trees that are prone to fall due to strong winds.

So far, agriculture has proved to be the toughest industry to implement IoT solutions, Vicks says. This is because it has many non-powered assets in a non-powered environment. But the solutions available can make a huge difference for farmers.

“When we ask them, ‘Do you know the irrigation level, the electrolyte level or the pH level of the soil?’, they have to take a scoop of the soil, analyse it and come back to you. It is a very manual process.

“But there are solutions where you put a probe and it sends you the irrigation data so you will not overwater. And with the electrolyte data, you can maximise the use of your fertiliser,” Vicks says.

Xperanti is embracing agriculture as a key sector, he adds. “We created a framework called ‘Making agriculture sexy’ with technology.”

This includes IoT, a big data platform, drones taking pictures for monitoring purposes as well as motion sensors.

Next year, the Sigfox network will be introduced in Indonesia. This provides a good opportunity for Malaysian companies to create IoT devices that utilise the network in various industries, particularly in agriculture.

“We are sitting on a gold mine when it comes to agriculture. Everyone is looking to see how we are going to embrace IoT and IR4.0. Malaysia’s job is to build success stories with these data models. The local device guy and application provider can build it and bring it to market,” Vick says.