SafeTrack is distinguished from other public health management programs due to its reliance on low-power wide-area networks (LPWAN). LPWANs are cost-efficient and can be implemented in regions that might not have a sophisticated communications infrastructure. The result is that SafeTrack public health solutions are not limited to more cost-restrictive wide area networks.
What Is an LPWAN?
LWPAN stands for a “low-powered wide-area network.” LPWANs are a kind of telecommunications network that allows communication between “things” (connected objects) at a low bit rate and energy consumption. LPWANs are distinguished from “wide-area networks” in that they require fewer resources to run and maintain.
Here is a concrete example to illuminate the differences. Smartphones use a lot of information to send data over medium-to-long distances. Normally this is not a problem as when your phone runs out of battery you can just recharge it. But certain transmitters and sensors—such as those on soil monitors—need to be able to send small packets of information for years or decades on a single battery charge.
Remote spread out sensors face a physics problem: If you want to increase broadcast range, you either need to increase the signal power or decrease the signal bandwidth. Think of it this way; Say you have a running garden hose. If you want to spray the water further, you either have to turn up the water source (power) or you create a narrower opening by holding your thumb over the opening.
LPWANs are communication systems designed for exactly these kinds of problems. LPWAN can send packets of information over miles-wide distances using low-energy battery-powered devices that can last for months or years at a time.
LPWAN and the Internet of Things (IoT)
LPWANs are an important aspect of the Internet of Things. The Internet of Things (IoT for short) consists of the millions and millions of physical devices that connect to the internet and share data. This system of interrelated computing devices can be used to transmit information without human input. The concept of “smart appliances” for the house is an example of the IoT approach to systems.
LPWANs solutions allow IoT systems across large geographic regions that may otherwise lack effective communication networks. Remote sensor devices that need to send periodic data updates can use LPWANs. This infrastructure allows for complex data transmission in sparsely populated rural areas.
Advantages of LPWANs
LPWANs have three major advantages over traditional WAN infrastructures:
- Low power: LPWANs are optimized for power consumption. An LPWAN transceiver or sensor can last up to 20 years on a single battery charge. Devices on normal WAN systems require much more power to transmit.
- Long-range: LPWANs have a long operational range. The standard range of an LPWAN can range from a few kilometers near cities to 10s of kilometers in the countryside. In that sense, LPWANs can provide effective communication networks to communities that are sparsely populated or otherwise lack modern communications infrastructure.
- Cost-effective: LPWANs have low operating costs due to their simplified hardware and communication protocols. Sensors can be made from cheap components with inexpensive batteries and the protocols can rely on license-free bands which reduces or eliminates licensing costs. A single LPWAN module can cost as little as $5.
Another advantage of LPWANs is the technology is less likely to become obsolete. Protocols on large cellular networks are constantly changing, which means every previous generation of radio devices must be replaced. The simple setup of LPWAN networks and the ability to use licensed or unlicensed bandwidths means that LPWAN sensors can be made for long term use.
LPWANs and Contact Tracing
In the context of public health management, LPWANs and IoT applications can be used to collect information about the spread of disease. LPWANs provide secure encrypted networks across large geographic locations and the tech has advanced enough to provide real-time data on people’s interaction and contacts with other individuals.
Using LPWANs for contact tracing protocols circumvents challenges to traditional contact tracing efforts. Firstly, LPWANs contact tracing networks can provide monitoring and coverage for populations that have low smartphone penetration. LPWANs remove the need to take advantage of large cellular networks. Second, LPWANs can be used for public health programs in countries or regions with little to no communications infrastructure. Even in places where there are no cell towers, LPWANs can be used to create secure communication networks.
Third, LPWANs and IoT technologies can give public health officials more ready access to important information to coordinate pandemic responses. One of the more difficult parts of contact tracing is figuring out who, exactly, an infected person has come in contact with. IoT devices such as wearable sensors can be configured to record proximity data and notify public health officials of an infected person’s location history and contact. The result is that organizations can more readily catch and truncate infection progression across communities. Further, such systems use advanced AI analysis of patterns of activity to identify changes in conditions.
Lastly, LPWANs and IoT applications are scalable. Cloud-based architectures are built with several redundancies, so GPS and geolocation services can handle as many users as required. One major problem with scaling communication networks is acquiring new hardware to handle the transition. The abstract nature of cloud-architecture means that no new hardware is required for scaling LPWAN applications to larger userbases. LPWAN solutions work for systems of any size/computing complexity.
LPWANs are a powerful solution for public health management. Combined with IoT systems, LPWANs can provide decentralized scalable communication networks for monitoring the spread of disease and the contacts of infected individuals. LPWAN-based systems offer several advantages over traditional telecommunications as they have very low power requirements, can be set up in areas without sophisticated communications infrastructure, and do not require special hardware or communication protocols to operate.
In the globalized world, new approaches are needed for traditional problems. IoT applications across LPWANs is a powerful step forward for public health management and signifies a new era in globally coordinated efforts at combating illness.