By Alan Zeichick
Location-as-a-Service (LaaS) isn’t a new concept. There are times when you simply want to know where a physical object is hiding. Perhaps it’s your car keys. Perhaps it’s a misrouted suitcase, an overnight package, a shipping pallet, a stolen cargo container, or Police Car #54. Where are you?
For the first use case, lost car keys, there’s Tile, a battery-powered gadget that works within the 30-meter radius of a Bluetooth signal.
For the other cases, there are several providers, but arguably the most interesting is PoLTE, a startup based near Dallas. I spent a lot of time talking to the company’s CEO, Ed Chao, at the recent NetEvents Global Press & Analyst Summit, May 24, 2018, in San Jose. (At that conference, PoLTE was awarded as Hot Start-Up for the Internet of Things, beating out other solid startups in this space.)
What makes PoLTE interesting is that it’s creating firmware that it licenses to device makers. The PoLTE software doesn’t require a Global Positioning System / SatNav chip, or make use of WiFi hotspots. Instead, PoLTE triangulates the positioning device using cell towers – that’s the LTE part of the company’s name. There are several big benefits to this approach:
- Because LTE is pretty accurate to within a few meters, the PoLTE technology is suitable for finding big things: You can finding out if the suitcase is on the ground, and if so, which plane or cargo cart has it. You can find a missing shipping container, or locate a pallet of raw materials within a factory.
- Because there’s no need for WiFi or GPS, the hardware requirements are greatly simplified. All that’s needed is an inexpensive LTE chip.
- Because there’s only a single chip, the power requirements are much lower than for a module with multiple chips – and by the way, WiFi and GPS/SatNav chips are pretty hungry for electricity. And there’s no need to wait for the GPS/SatNav system to find satellite.
- Because LTE signals generally do a better job penetrating structures and dense foliage than GPS/SatNav, and even WiFi, a location module using the PoLTE firmware can find its location more effectively indoors, in a delivery truck, or within an aircraft parked at an airport.
- Because the device is already talking to the LTE cellular network, it can proactively update PoLTE’s cloud service with the module’s location, or respond to a location query, depending on application requirements.
What about the business model? That’s where PoLTE needs to some more work, in my opinion. It’s envisioning a scenario where it provides licenses for its firmware for free, or at a very low cost. Organizations wishing to track the device of the hardware module (and thereby, the object containing that module) would then subscribe to PoLTE’s Location-as-a-Service.
The four challenges I see for PoLTE can all be overcome, but it will take some work.
First, there’s a question of who is making all the money. The ability to track an object’s location is a potentially very valuable service. It’s unclear whether the amount that PoLTE could charge would be enough, to be honest, for a technology that supports both a sub-dollar module thrown into a FedEx package, and also embedded into expensive tractor-trailers.
Second, there’s nothing to prevent someone else from offering such a service. Yes, Ed Chao explained that PoLTE has patents, but face it, while there’s some clever math involved in triangulating position based on cellular signals, that’s not irreproducible rocket science. It may be hard to protect PoLTE’s first-mover advantage.
Third, there’s no network effect, and therefore, no customer loyalty. If you have a thousand PoLTE sensors, there’s probably nothing to stop you from moving to Brand X’s location system if Brand X offers a similar service for less. That’s particularly true with service providers, who might deploy location sensors in tremendous numbers, and who might private-label the location cloud service to build their own brands.
Fourth, there’s little or no branding. Firmware is pretty invisible. By offering only a small part of a software stack, there’s only so much the company can do to promote a “PoLTE Inside!” style campaign. Unless their IP is very hard to replicate, PoLTE could find itself outflanked by organizations offering a full solution – software, hardware, and cloud service.
To summarize: I’m very impressed with PoLTE. They have a great concept, strong IP, a super-smart CEO, and a clear first-mover advantage. Still, in order for this start-up to be truly successful, they’ll need more. Much more.