With the numerous announcements from major mobile operators regarding the deployment of IoT networks, especially Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) ones, one may wonder if there is room for smaller players. This kind of networks requires a relatively small investment compared to mobile networks, but does that mean that small-scale operations can be economically viable? Is it possible for a player to deploy a network on a single town and achieve a return on investment?
The French town of Saint-Sulpice-la-Forêt could very soon prove to be an inspiring example for small players. With around 1,500 inhabitants (1,412 in 2013), and a handful of public employees, the town looks just like thousands of others in France. Yet, municipal services have decided to deploy a LoRaWAN network. At first sight, it may look like an extravagance to some, but city officials and employees are actually expecting a return on investment within 3 years.
The city of Saint-Sulpice-la-Forêt however has a significant advantage over similar towns: most city employees have a technical background and are familiar with innovative technologies: green buildings, development of websites and smartphone apps, Bid Data, telecom networks, smart sensors… Additionally, an important number of inhabitants also work in the digital sector.
By deploying its own long range IoT network, the city expects to monitor and manage the energy consumption of its buildings better. According to reports of a local public energy agency, the energy bill of Saint-Sulpice-la-Forêt saw a 9% yearly increase between 2006 and 2014, reaching €50,000 in 2015. While only 6 buildings (school, town hall, sports hall, cultural center, technical services, multi-purpose room) are responsible for 80% of the town’s energy bills, the lack of detailed indicators made it difficult for the city to decide how to react. The energy bill was actually the only source of information regarding energy consumption (and obviously, the reports from the local energy agency). This lack of monitoring tools were also detrimental regarding water consumption, as a leak in a public building was only detected after receiving the bill: the equivalent of 26 swimming pools worth of water was lost.
Some may wonder why the city didn’t invest in insulation works or energy management solutions. But these are costly, and the variety of buildings made it hard to find the perfect tool, as some of them even lacked electric panels. These solutions are also inefficient when the losses come mainly from the inadequate behavior of users: leaving the light on, the door open, or heating the building throughout the night. By showing the citizens the impacts of an appropriate use of public buildings, the city hopes it can make a change.
The project was set up with two local start-ups, Alkante (data analytics and IoT platform) and Wi6labs (specialized in LoRa and 6LoWPAN). From the available material on the project, it seems the network will rely on the LoRaWAN network server put in place by the neighboring town of Rennes and its Fab Lab, which has an operational LoRa network available to third parties for trial purposes.
With the help of the two start-ups, the town hopes to make yearly savings of at least 20% of the 2015 bill (€10k) by 2018. A part of the savings will be used to finance insulation works in public buildings. While the project will first focus on collecting data regarding energy and water consumption as well as indoor temperature, the team behind the project plans to use the network for all sorts of data in the future: outdoor temperature, more precise energy consumption monitoring, presence and CO2 sensors, noise sensors… It is also worth mentioning that the data produced by the project will be released on an Open Data basis, so that citizens can follow the efficiency of the solution. The data will also provide information to other local authorities who may be tempted to do the same.