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Emergence of low-power IoT networks: The second wireless revolution

One of the many shock waves that the Internet of Things has set in motion across different technology markets can be found in telecommunications. Previously, the direction of the telecoms industry seemed very unambiguous: to keep increasing the data rates that can be delivered over the air. This strategic homogeneity made the industry predictable and even stale, with all suppliers pursuing more or less the same goals.

The status quo is now being shaken up by IoT, which is shifting attention from data rates to power efficiency. The latter priority is largely at odds with the former, so the new technologies that this shift is leading to are decidedly low in terms of bandwidth, in order to minimize the power consumption of end devices.

There obviously is still a time and a place for using high-bandwidth communications in IoT applications that require higher data rates and lower latency — such as connected car, smart grid or industrial automation — but all in all, the really transformative stuff is happening at the opposite end of the connectivity space. As an innovation enabler, the emergence of low-power IoT networks could be compared to how the rise of mobile unleashed personal communications and computing from the world of wires.

The key difference, though, is that this time around the Things are being unleashed from electricity wiring. Advances in low-power, low-bandwidth telecoms are allowing enterprises and makers to develop “connected” and “smart” products that have to rely neither on access to power supply nor frequent recharge cycles. They can be built to run several years on batteries and, furthermore, those batteries can be small enough to permit significantly more discreet and flexible form factors for the end device than what could have been envisioned only a few years ago.

In the following, let’s take a look at the most important recent developments that the quest for low-power telecoms has lately led to:

  • Thread is a new 802.15.4-based protocol that deserves to be highlighted for the mere fact that it has triggered a whole new sense of urgency amidst the vendors that drive the following three technologies on the list. Designed for home and building automation, Thread has generally gotten off to a good start and its certification program is currently vetting the first cohort of compliant devices. Once the commercial versions of such products start hitting the market — probably in the second half of the year — we can start assessing how well Thread’s implementations can actually match the admittedly lofty expectations.
  • Bluetooth has had its IoT-friendly incarnation, Bluetooth Low Energy, available already for half a decade, but its relevance to developers has been quite seriously inhibited by its short range and point-to-point nature. This year, Bluetooth as a standard should finally get its eagerly awaited capability for running mesh networks. That is an addition that could, especially, divert the (hitherto over-hyped) beacon space into an interesting direction.
  • Wi-Fi HaLow is the framework for the low-power, longer-range implementations of Wi-Fi, run in the increasingly sought-after 900-MHz frequency bands. Given the relative ubiquity of Wi-Fi in homes, buildings and urban spaces, HaLow could certainly reshuffle the connectivity market for a variety of IoT applications. On the downside, the progress towards it has been undeniably slow; for example, the certification program is scheduled for not earlier than 2018. That is starting to be rather late, given everything else that is going on.
  • ZigBee 3.0 is the latest version of the ZigBee standards, whose infamous fragmentation has so far made the technology as a whole amount to quite much less than the sum of its parts — or application profiles, to be more specific. Ratified in the end of 2015, the third generation aims to harmonize the profiles substantially and thus improve device interoperability. The case for developing Thread from scratch had a lot to do with ZigBee’s shortcomings, so there is something of a last-ditch feel to the attempt.
  • Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) is an umbrella concept for a group of new technologies that have been built to combine power efficiency and inexpensive hardware components with the operational benefits of wide area networks. Machina Research further splits the concept into two subcategories: with “dedicated” LPWA consisting of the purposely designed technologies such as LoRa, RPMA and Sigfox, and “evolutionary” LPWA covering the alternatives that have been developed as upgrades to existing ones like LTE. During 2015, LPWA became one of the hottest topics on the supply side of IoT. Collectively, these networks could well prove a real game changer, although there are still also certain question marks related to their technical, commercial and even regulatory feasibility.
  • Other major developments in IoT connectivity can be found mostly in low-power mesh networking. Wi-SUN is an 802.15.4-based standard that has been engineered especially for utility networks, and it has shown a lot of early promise in that sector. Its most high-profile implementation, Silver Spring Network’s Starfish, has been just opened up to also serve developers outside of the company’s own customer base. At the same time, Wirepas is a vendor that has come up with a software solution that seems to be able to dramatically boost the scalability aspect of mesh networks, which has always been their weakest spot from the enterprise perspective.

By far the best part about such multipolar innovation is that the involved technology camps are keeping each other on their toes, and progress by one pushes the others to up their game. It should also keep the bargaining power of key vendors or service providers in check, preventing rent seeking and other practices that would ultimately stifle innovation on the enterprise level.

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