Electronic Design
Sensors that wirelessly monitor how many cars are using a parking garage Image courtesy of Steven LilleyFlickr

Sensors that wirelessly monitor how many cars are using a parking garage. (Image courtesy of Steven Lilley/Flickr).

Weightless Moves Toward Single Low-Power Wireless Standard

Type low-power wide-area network into a search engine and you will get tangled in a rubber band ball of information about wireless links for sensors and household objects. While most provide similar benefits, there are a dizzying number of options for device makers to choose from.

The Weightless Special Interest Group, an industry organization with one of those wireless protocols, is taking steps to change that. The group recently said that it would join the European Telecommunications Standards Institute to define a new standard using ultra-narrowband airwaves. It is also adding Telensa, a company with a similar protocol, to its board.

The moves are meant to provide “a platform around which the industry can coalesce,” said William Webb, the chief executive of Weightless, in a statement. Uniting similar protocols could make companies more likely to support low-power wide-area (LPWA) networks in their products, he said.

Weightless has developed two ultra-narrowband protocols that operate in the unlicensed spectrum—both of which, the group says, are more energy-efficient and reliable than cellular networks. That makes them ideal for small connected devices that use little bandwidth to send data and might remain in operation for years.

The idea is to “harmonize the technology that our group has developed with the same kind of technology” being developed as part of the Low Throughput Network project, said Alan Woolhouse, a Weightless spokesman. “We will take the positive aspects of this technology and offer it to the program,” he added.

Telensa, one of the veterans in ultra-narrowband technology, will work more closely on the project as a member of the Weightless board. The company, which developed its own wireless protocol for linking smart street lights, has supported the ETSI effort for nearly two years. “Proprietary ecosystems are no substitute for credible open standards,” Will Gibson, Telensa’s chief executive, said in a statement.

In recent years, the LPWA industry has made calls to merge competing protocols into standards. But actual consolidation has been slow, hampered by fresh funding to companies with proprietary technology. Investors lending support for technologies up and down the wireless spectrum have also slowed further unification.

Sigfox, a French startup that has developed an ultra-narrowband protocol, has supported the development of the ETSI standard but was not involved in the latest agreement. In the quest to become a carrier for the Internet of Things (IoT), the company raised $115 million in its latest funding round. Earlier this year, it vowed to expand into 100 cities in the United States.

Sigfox could not be reached to comment on the extent of its support for the ETSI standard.

There are a huge number of options for IoT connectivity, but that has not slowed demand. Low-power wide-area networks connected 23.2 million devices in 2015—nearly three times the number from 2014—according to Machina Research, a research firm that tracks the LPWA market.

The widespread demand is one of the reasons behind forming a new standard. “It isn’t useful or particularly successful for standards to compete,” Woolhouse said. The latest announcement, he points out, brings together most of the major players in the ultra-narrowband space. The ultra-narrowband standard would also benefit the chipmakers—like Weightless supporters M2COMM and ARM — that make hardware to handle those airwaves.

The latest agreement is mostly related to unlicensed spectrum. But Weightless has plans to strike similar deals with the 3G Partnership Project, which maintains global cellular standards. The idea, according to Woolhouse, is to make ultra-narrowband compatible with Narrowband-IoT, a low-power cellular standard in development that runs on licensed spectrum.

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