The guy who wants to build Montreal’s LoRaWAN network from scratch

There’s a new wave in connecting together “smart” objects and one local non-profit wants to build out Montreal’s entire network.

It all revolves around an “LPWAN” or a Low-Power Wide-Area Network, which is a less less power hungry and cheaper type of wireless telecommunication network than a cellular-based network. With LPWAN, tons of sensors connected by the Internet of Things (IoT) can talk to each other in order to make an area “smarter.” It’s long-range communication at a low bit rate, all operated by batteries that can be found in a watch.

Much like the IoT in general, the applications and opportunities for an LPWAN are endless: from smarter street lights to real-time monitoring of air quality to smart parking, to improving a company’s efficiency in a warehouse or plant. Or it can be used for simpler things, like if a farmer who wants to track his/her cattle in real-time.

Ultimately it will power a whole generation of new applications.

Led by Montrealer Daniel Drouet and Godot Huard, the non-profit IoT Montreal specifically wants to build out a small LoRaWAN, or a Long Range Wide Area Network. They have no interest in being a commercial operator, like perhaps a Videotron, Bell or even a Hydro Quebec could presumably be, but rather they want to build a local test platform where others can build on top.

A LoRaWAN network is important because it can make a smart city, well, smarter (and at a lower cost). If Google maps tells you where to arrive, a city full of LoRaWAN sensors can tell your app in real time where a better parking spot can be found, among many other cool and helpful things.

“With LoRaWAN we can measure everything in order to make more efficient decisions,” Drouet told MTLinTECH. “To do that we need the data to feed into our analytics engines. LoRaWAN technology finally makes it cheap enough and possible to wire up tons of sensors that we previously couldn’t afford. It means we’ll be able to get a lot more information about our environment to make smarter decisions.”

The 49-year-old telecom engineer and long-time Montreal entrepreneur was one of the founding fathers of the Notman House project. Back then, about six or seven years ago, he was also one of the original investors in Real Ventures, then called “Montreal Startup.” Drouet also co-created Ile Sans Fils in 2002 when the term WiFi was still barely known. Fifteen years later, the organization that started out as completely volunteer-based employs about six people powering 1,500 hotspots.

More recently he founded Ajah which helps charities with their fundraising and Discoder which helps startups hire software developers.

In addition to offering a free network for experimentation, IoT Montreal is planning to run workshops where people can learn about LoRaWAN, embedded systems and smart sensors. The organization wants to spend a lot of its time doing outreach to existing businesses to explain why there’s a big opportunity.

Drouet doesn’t want to build the LoRaWAN in Montreal completely through volunteers. That’s why he’s already solicited the help of about a dozen financial or non-financial sponsors for the project, including players like Cossette, Desjardings, the City of Montreal and UQAM. He’s hoping the City of Montreal will end up taking on a larger sponsorship role, ideally covering half the costs of deployment. It stands to make sense given how much time and money the city has already invested in making Montreal a “smart” city.

As such, building out a LoRaWAN network won’t be cheap. Drouet said a network in the downtown core will likely cost around or less than $100,000 per year.

Still, that’s much less than what it might take to run the system on a cellular network.

“We’re talking about sensors that can run five to ten years on the same battery which is in my watch right now. These are sensors that send a little data once in a while, maybe they only record temperature or send an alert if something goes wrong, but it’s very cheap to use. Now we can connect stuff that we could not connect before because it was too expensive,” said Drouet.

LoRaWAN is already prevalent in Asia and Europe. In France there are already two national networks that have deployed LoRaWAN, including OrangeProximus covers Belgium, KPN covers Holland and SK Telecom covers South Korea. LoRaWAN has also been deployed in India and Singapore.

Rapid change tends to follow when someone figures out a new way to improve a technological process at a dramatically lower price. Clearly, indicated Drouet, there’s a huge commercial opportunity. His non-profit is hoping to help Montreal and its entrepreneurs take advantage of it.


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