For IoT developers, safely testing products, sharing experiences, and understanding how to overcome complex challenges are critical to designing functional technologies. Community networks offer a great avenue for developers to share their information with a larger audience.
Community networks, such as The Things Network, Helium, and the Semtech Network Server, are crowdsourced IoT networks maintained by thousands of people and organizations worldwide that run one or more gateways to ensure network coverage. They are open for anyone to add gateways and connect end devices. The decentralized nature of such community networks allows for rapid and uninhibited expansion of network coverage.
Through these networks, developers can easily and effectively test their products in real-world applications while sharing knowledge with others in their field.
Community network benefits
Of the many benefits of community networks, the most prominent is that anyone can connect to one, and in some cases can set one up on their own if needed (perhaps for on-premises deployments). More broadly, by simply adding gateways, they can expand IoT coverage not only to rural areas, but also to those that are financially unattractive to conventional internet service providers. In the IoT space, decentralized community network coverage has dramatically lowered initial investment and operational costs for IoT solution deployments.
Limited coverage areas present a significant barrier to increasing commercial-scale IoT device deployments. Using community networks to connect IoT devices helps lower that barrier. When a new gateway is installed, it expands network coverage for all users while keeping data from sensors and applications private.
Community networks also offer developers an opportunity to learn how to work with a network server to build IoT solutions. Developing and prototyping solutions on a community network gives the user complete control of the environment for building and testing their solutions in the real world before launching on their own networks. By using a community network, developers can benchmark and validate the functionality of their solutions from the end point application all the way to the cloud.
And each community network comes with a community of users with whom developers can discuss their challenges, troubleshoot problems, share projects, and gather feedback. This type of community support is providing an important element for any development project.
Connecting to community networks
Before deploying a new IoT solution, it’s important to verify that there is sufficient and reliable coverage to support it. The community network you choose will likely have a coverage map available that you can use for your initial research. For some examples, check out The Things Network’s TTN Mapper or the Helium Explorer. As you will find, many metro areas have sufficient coverage to support several IoT deployments without the need to install additional gateways.
In contrast, rural or previously unconnected areas may require an initial investment with respect to installing gateways to establish the coverage needed. However, once the new gateways are installed, they can be connected to the network immediately.
An important thing to keep in mind is that gateways on community networks are not owned or regulated by a central provider, so service level agreements (SLA) may not exist. If a stringent SLA is required, you might want to go with a commercial network offering or consider an on-premises installation which puts the network and associated gateways under your own control to ensure that your service level requirements for connectivity can be met.
In most cases, connecting to a community network is straightforward. First, register for an account on the network you wish to use. Next, if you need to add a gateway or router for coverage, you need to then add those to the network. The gateways connect the end devices to the network server and allow information to flow between the sensors and the network. Finally, you’ll register the end node to your account to give it access to the network.
This ensures the device can join the network and that its data is routed correctly. Most community network servers also integrate with a set of application servers such as Azure, AWS, ThingsBoard, or Tago. The application server acts as the host for the actual application and its performance.
The real advantage of using one of these community networks is that, by and large, the infrastructure you need is already available and provisioned; you just need to bring your sensors. With all these resources in place, developers can build, test, and prototype projects on an open environment that allows for creativity and experimentation without a significant initial investment.
Future IoT connectivity
Community networks represent the future of IoT connectivity. Their massive coverage area and quick expansion potential make them a great, budget-friendly resource for developers. Furthermore, their open-source nature adds a backbone of support from other users. Developers can use community networks to find the connectivity and tools they need to build prototypes that realize the full potential of IoT solutions in a way that wasn’t possible before the advent of this type of open-access connectivity.
Looking ahead, the coverage and influence of community networks will only grow as more gateways are deployed. So, developers, what are you waiting for? Start building today.
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