Sep 22, 2022 - Technology
Column / Signal Boost

A new kind of wireless aims to connect the planet and save it, too

Photo Illustration of Semtech CEO Mohan Maheswaran with geometric shapes

Photo Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios. Photos: courtesy of Semtech

The CEO of Semtech doesn't mind that you have never heard of his chip company, but hopes the low-power wireless technology it is pushing will soon be on everyone's radar.

Why it matters: The technology, known as LoRa, has the potential to connect billions of devices without simultaneously inflicting further harm on the planet, Semtech CEO Mohan Maheswaran told Axios.

  • Technologies such as 5G and Bluetooth can also connect a wide range of wireless devices but consume considerably more power. That costs more and is also rougher on the environment.

Catch-up quick: LoRa, named for long-range radio, is a wireless technology developed by another company that Semtech later purchased.

  • Its initial applicationlong-range is to connect sensors and small devices in the Internet of Things (IoT) market for home automation, industrial systems and similar uses.

Semtech makes the chips that enable devices to use LoRa technology, while the standard itself is managed by an independent organization.

  • LoRa is designed for carrying small amounts of data over a long distance and without using much power.
  • It runs in unlicensed spectrum and sends signals that can travel as far as several miles before connecting to another type of network. In a house, that could be a Wi-Fi network, while in rural areas it could be 5G or satellite.

State of play: Though still in the early stages of adoption, early applications of LoRa today include in devices that monitor water use and track items that companies own. Amazon has also combined LoRa and Bluetooth as part of its Sidewalk network for IoT uses.

Between the lines: Today's smart city projects, Maheswaran says, sometimes founder because they rely on costlier, more power-hungry technologies.

  • Maheswaran points to one in his native India that connects lights, traffic signals and trash cans. It relies on cellular and wi-fi connections and consumes way too much power. That's especially problematic in a country where power grids are easily strained and outages frequent.

What's next: Semtech is in the process of buying Sierra Wireless, a Canadian maker of wireless components, in a $1.2 billion deal, its largest-ever acquisition. The deal, expected to close later this year, is set to add 1,000 people to Semtech's existing 1,400-employee workforce and roughly double the company's revenue.

  • Maheswaran said Sierra brings capabilities that Semtech lacks, including cloud-based skills to manage networks of LoRa devices.

The bottom line: While Maheswaran has outlined the economic benefits of the deal to Wall Street, he also describes it as a way to connect billions of devices in a way that could literally save the planet.

  • "I have four grandchildren," he said. "I want to give them hope."
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