Wi-Sun Alliance hoping to make standard shine in Europe

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Wi-Sun is seeking to prove that the telco industry needs yet another Internet of Things standard as it turns its attention to the European market.

The mesh-network technology has been focusing on North and South America and Asia to date, connecting devices across smart utilities and cities.

There are 40 million Wi-Sun devices worldwide and the technology's industry body, the Wi-Sun Alliance, boasts 130 member companies, including Analog Devices, Cisco and Toshiba, offering 80 products between them.

The tech uses the local area network IEEE 802.15.4g technology, which was standardised in 2012, originally for smart utilities. It operates in unlicensed spectrum in the 868MHz, 915MHz or 2.45GHz bands.

Phil Beecher, Chairman of the Wi-Sun Alliance (the "Sun" standing for "Smart Ubiquitous Networks"), says one reason why the technology hasn't been embraced in earnest in Europe so far is that those bands have not been as freed up as in other markets.

He tells Mobile Europe: "Up until recently, we have not done a lot of promotion in Europe, just because there wasn't the spectrum available. If you look at LoRa and Sigfox, they were targeting the sub-1GHz ISM band in 868.3MHz, where you have very low transmit power capability.

"Even though there's a specification for Wi-Sun at 868.3MHz, I don't think it would be heavily used. It doesn't have the range with the given transmit power.

"But with the opening up of additional spectrum across Europe, there are a number of applications that have become applicable."

The technology supports speeds of between 50kbps and 300kbps, although Beecher says it is aiming to ultimately increase that to 1MBps.

Unlike the now familiar names of LoRa, LTE-M, NB-IoT or Sigfox, the technology eschews the operator route, moving instead directly from vendor to customer.

Beecher says: "In a smart city, connecting street lights is a pretty good example of how to create the mesh network. Most street lights will be within communication range with others, offering point to point connectivity.

"You can start deploying on all of the street lights and by their very nature would be able to communicate with at least one of their neighbours, maybe more.

"Then it's a case of moving onto interconnect with a backhaul network, which could be through fibre or cellular depending on the environment.

"Depending on what the application would be, you would connect in the devices. There's a discovery process as the network powers up where it automatically finds neighbours to find if they are all on the correct network and negotiate authentication.

"End devices would wake up, discover a street light nearby and then communicate onto the street light."

He says the nature of the mesh network, with its peer to peer nature, would make it easier for connectivity to punch into those tricky basements or cellars, with repeating nodes handling the backhaul.

Some solution providers, which as Silver Spring Networks, also offer the opportunity to connect existing devices to a mesh network.

But its late entry begs the question whether it has missed the boat in Europe. Some operators were so anxious to drive IoT connectivity that they developed LoRa ahead of the standardisation of cellular Internet of Things solutions.

Beecher says the focus of Wi-Sun is to act as a counterbalance to LoRa and Sigfox. He says: "Technologies like LoRa and Sigfox have led to a lot of talk and publicity about those technologies in a very short period of time."

Somewhat mischievously, he suggests operators may not have a long-term commitment to those technologies. He adds: "There are [also] use cases and particular scenarios that the telcos may not see as a suitable return on investment for deploying the technology.

"The other advantage of Wi-Sun is if a company wants to manage its own network, particularly utilities companies who want 20 year life cycles, they may not want the MNOs to provide those services.

"We've seen this already with utilities still trying to use GPRS in places and those services have been taken away from them because they have been no longer effective for the MNOs to run."

He says Wi-Sun is different as partners will not be left "stranded" with connected devices that no longer connect some years down the line.

Use cases can also differ. He says LoRa and Sigfore more suited to low data rate, low duty cycle applications like sensors, rather than the always-on actuator applications that control systems.

He adds: "With NB-IoT and LTE-M, I am not sure how the pricing will work for operational expenditure. Maybe it will stay relatively low. I'm not sure what the long-term commitment will be from the cellular industry.

"People can start deploying Wi-Sun networks now and will have full control because they are managing it themselves. It's well known technology and because of the mesh nature of it, you get ubiquitous coverage.

"It's not ideal for all applications. For rural and agriculture solutions, it's not the best option whereas LoRa is probably great if you are doing agricultural or livestock monitoring."

Beecher laughs when asked if the mobile industry really needs another IoT technology. While the approach thus far has been to go direct to customers, he says he expects operators to get involved in "the near future", but chooses not to go any further.

If so, it would equip the telco industry with another string to its connected bow. Beecher says the focus on whether it is too late to the party is misguided as a lot of the applications are only in their infancy. He adds: "Smart cities are just coming into fruition and it's going to be very interesting to see which technologies win out and which prove themselves to be scalable."

The race is on to see if Wi-Sun can shine in Europe or fails to rise to the occasion.