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Let the Wireless Wars Begin

February 15th, 2011 |  Published in Wireless Connectivity  |  9 Comments

It’s been an interesting week for the short range wireless standards.  The two terrible teenagers, ANT and ZigBee have both shown signs of their growing maturity, starting to position themselves as far more serious contenders in the market place.  In the wake of their move from adolescence, a new toddler has emerged in the form of Toumaz, with their announcement of their Telran chip.

What has been missing is any reaction, or in fact much sign of any action from their elder siblings – Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.  As large manufacturers continue to tighten their belts, one of the less noticed effects has been a steady withdrawal of engineering support from standards organisations.  In the past, many of these have been staffed with seconded experts from the big names in industry.  Increasingly those big names are withdrawing, relying largely on chip vendors to push their interests within the standards organisations.  That’s left Wi-Fi and Bluetooth battling to persuade industry members that either standard has a development future, with certain of their members considering that the job has been done.

Which opens up the field for the former competitors to claim some potentially interesting parts of the market.

ZigBee has been around for almost seven years, but has struggled to gain traction.  Part of its problem is that unlike Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, it hasn’t got a free ride from being incorporated into phones or PCs.  That’s meant it’s had to fight for every chip that its members have sold.  During those seven years it’s tried its arm in a number of different application areas before selling its soul to the smart metering movement (and to a lesser degree, home automation).  That Faustian pact looks as if it may be about to pay off.

Last week the ZigBee Alliance made the provocative move of holding its quarterly meeting in Seattle, home of the Bluetooth SIG.  In the event, it’s not obvious that they even disturbed the sleep of their neighbourly slumbering giant.  The meeting’s main purpose was to finalise and approve the latest Version 1.1 of the ZigBee Smart Energy Profile (SEP 1.1).  That happened, so the world now has SEP 1.1.  In addition, the meeting managed to do a host of useful work on moving towards the next version – SEP 2.0, and making progress on the Home Automation Profiles.

SEP 1.1 is an extremely important step for ZigBee, as it signifies a bridge between today’s form of ZigBee mesh and the future form, which is IP based, drawing on the work of the 6LoWPAN initiative.  Every certified ZigBee produce that exists in the market today uses ZigBee’s own mesh protocol.  That has been refined through a number of releases to be a robust mesh network.  However, it does not allow every node to be addressed from an IP network.  That requires a fundamentally new layer to be added, which is the core of SEP 2.0.  In the US, NIST has mandated IP addressability for future smart grid standards, and elsewhere in the world, many other governments and regulators are thinking whether they should follow that lead.

The problem is that the two protocols of pre- and post-IP ZigBee are not compatible.  For utilities that are currently starting smart meter deployments that’s a big concern, as if they standardise on meters with ZigBee SEP 1.0 today, they risk having millions of stranded assets that may be incompatible with their future infrastructure.  That’s where SEP 1.1 comes in, and why it’s so important.  The main addition that it contains is a standardised upload method, which will allow devices in the field to be upgraded over the air to a future ZigBee 2.0 standard.  That should give the smart metering industry the confidence to move ahead with deployments, with a much lower risk of stranded meters.  There are still some questions to be asked, not least of which is whether an SEP 1.1 device will have sufficient memory and computing resource to run a future 2.0 Smart Energy Profile?  And we won’t necessarily know the answer to that for another six months, when work on that profile will be drawing to a close.  But with that caveat, SEP 1.1 should be lifting a considerable weight from the minds of utilities contemplating a smart meter project.

ANT weren’t meeting this week, but released an “independent” analysis of the power consumption of different wireless standards, blasting ZigBee as “cumbersome, high power and fragmented“.   ANT has come from being a small scale, proprietary standard for sorts and fitness devices, to being a serious contender that is also beginning to make inroads in medical devices.

In some senses, ANT is still proprietary, as it’s owned and managed by Dynastream, a company in turn owned by Garmin.  They’ve resisted opening the standard up as a wider industry effort, as they claim that this would result in unnecessary committees, doubtless agreeing with the old adage that a committee is “something that takes minutes and wastes hours”.  Ironically that’s not dissimilar to the attitude of Bluetooth’s five founding members, who felt that they could do a more expedient job of getting a standard to market by keeping the work to themselves.  What goes around, goes around…

What has moved ANT out of the proprietary regime is a growing number of silicon vendors who are supporting, or looking to support it.  As well as the original devices from Nordic Semiconductor, you can now find ANT support in TI chips, including those that go into mobile phones.  ANT has been doing a very good job of allowing manufacturers to tell it what profiles they want and then implementing them, with the result that a growing number of health and fitness devices are sporting ANT.

In contrast, the ability of Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and ZigBee to get into health devices has been at best lacklustre.  Despite the Continua Health Alliance selecting both Bluetooth and ZigBee as its preferred wireless standards, ANT is the standard that’s making the running in the marketplace.

The newcomer, or the toddler showing promise is Toumaz – a UK start-up, which has been active for some years in low power, sub GHz Body Area Wireless Networks, notably with its Sensium platform.  Their latest chip – the TZ1053 “Telran” (and I have no idea what that means – the only reference I can find to Telran is an Israeli company selling set top boxes and food mixers), shows that they’re keen to move past their medical market and try to take a bite out of wireless sensor networks, environmental monitoring and smart metering.

Toumaz differs in that it’s not running at 2.4GHz, and offers higher range and lower power, such that it will run off a coin cell for years.  If you think you’ve heard that before, you’d be right – it’s what Bluetooth chip companies have been claiming for Bluetooth low energy.  I’ve certainly seen demonstrations that prove that they can achieve these figures.  But with no clear indication of when profiles will arrive for Bluetooth low energy, and with Nokia – the key driver of the technology, (dating back from when it was WiBree) having rather more important issues to deal with, the question arises as to whether the Bluetooth SIG is fiddling whilst Rome burns?

A few years ago the short range wireless hegemony looked fairly well established.  Wi-Fi would do internet access to static laptops, Bluetooth would do voice and anything connected to a phone, ZigBee would probably do smart energy, and anything else was up for grabs.  Bluetooth low energy and Wi-Fi then came along and threatened to change the status quo, but most of that early enthusiasm seems to have disappeared as the desire to grow and own new ecosystems has waned.  ZigBee now looks as if it will repel any boarders on the smart energy front, and ANT may well be the eventual winner for healthcare.  There’s still a healthy business for low cost proprietary wireless in everything from keyboards to toys to burglar alarms, and it looks as if that might stay around for a lot longer than anyone thought.

The only question now is whether any of the standards will fail?  Most of them have the ability to replace some of the other applications, but don’t necessarily appear to have the stomach for a battle.  Instead they may play a waiting game, hoping that something upsets one of the markets, giving them a chance to come in and pick up the pieces.   The one thing that has changed for all of them is the level of industry participation.  To move forward, they’re having to do more with fewer resources.  It may well be that is the key factor that maintains the status quo we seem to have arrived at.  If so, it will be interesting to see whether new or derivative standards are successful, or whether the future is limited to muddling along with the current incumbents?

9 comments ↓

#1 Harald Naumann on 02.16.11 at 7:08 pm

Thank you for the nice article. You mentioned TI , but I miss Nordic. Nordic offers ANT as well.

I already ask the question:
Why paying for a ZigBee fee if you can get a better Wireless Sensor Network for free?
http://www.gsm-modem.de/M2M/m2m-componets/6lowpan-ipv6-module/
At the exhibition Embedded World in Nurnberg / Germany you can see a live demostration of 6LoWAN modules in 868 and 915 MHz band. In the 900 MHz band you can expact a better indoor coverage in comparison to 2400 MHz band. If the people talk about ZigBee, then they mean 2400 MHz often.

Qualification Cost Comparison Bluetooth, Bluetooth LE, ZigBee and ANT+
http://www.gsm-modem.de/M2M/m2m-faq/qualification-cost-comparsion-bluetooth-bluetooh-le-zigbee-ant/
The costs for ANT+ in the graphic are wrong, because Dynastrem has changed the costs for the fee in the meantime. Anyhow, 6LoWPAN is still the cheapest, because it is licence free.

#2 Nick on 02.16.11 at 9:36 pm

Apologies for missing out Nordic – that was a serious omission, which I’ve corrected.

#3 nex on 02.19.11 at 10:46 am

Nice post Nick!!

15.02.11 ANT released the API for Android OS.

The future looks bright for ANT!

Cheers!

Øystein.

#4 Harald Naumann on 02.27.11 at 6:47 pm

First of all I would like to mention, that I am supporting all RF technologies (Buetooth,Bluetooth Low Energy, ANT+, Gazel and ZigBee) mentioned in the text as below. Every technology has its market.

Second I would like to say thank you to Nick for this blog post all other blog posts before.

1. Qualification cost comparison ANT, Bluetooth, Bluetooth Low Energy, ZigBee
http://www.gsm-modem.de/M2M/m2m-faq/qualification-cost-comparsion-bluetooth-bluetooh-le-zigbee-ant/
Please note that the graph is old. The ANT fee has changed from once a time USD 500 to USD per year. Anyhow, this is still much cheaper than all other mentioned technologies in the graph.

2. Sell what you have – take market share on technology that you can order
ANT is on the market for years. ANT is a field approved ultra low power RF technology. If you place an order for a Bluetooth Low Energy evaluation kit with me, then you get BT LE chips that will work on a proprietary profile because the BT LE profiles promised for December was not launched.

3. Basic products with ANT+ and Bluetooth Low Energy on the market
3.1 ANT+
– Android Smart phone = Yes, with chip inside the phone and Android API. Sony Ericsson is helping with 5 different smart phones.
– IPhone = Yes, with dongle for extension port
– USB dongle = Yes, with drivers for several operating systems up to open source projects and DLLs and code for LabView even in German language
– Micro and mini SD card = Yes
– Adapter boards for open source micro controller = Yes, already on the move

3.2 Bluetooth Low Energy
– Android Smart phone = Not supported yet
– IPhone = Not supported yet
– USB dongle = Not supported yet
– Micro and mini SD card = Not supported yet
– Adapter boards for open source micro controller = Not supported yet

4. Pin compatibility of ANT chips to other ultra low power technology
– Nordic nRF24AP2 versus Nordic nRF24LE01+
Both modules are in package QFN32. The nRF24LE01+ you can get in a Flash and OTP version. For nRF24LE01+ you can get Open Source and licence free protocols like Gazel. If there is no need for interoperability with smart phones or tablet PCs, then Gazel is an option as well. Anyhow, the decision you can make later or even support both technologies in same PCB layout.

4.1 Examples for requests on Bluetooth LE or plain ultra low power 2400 MHz technology and recommendations of mine

4.1.1 Access to machines by remote control
http://www.gsm-modem.de/M2M/m2m-faq/ant-antplus-smart-phone-control-machines/
With using of an ANTplus (ANT+) powered Android smart phone they will save on
* Qualification costs for Bluetooth LE or ZigBee, because the ANT+ qualification is much less
* Development of a hand held remote control on ZigBee, because the remote control is already inside the smart phone
* Costs for RTTE, FCC and other certifications in further countries (e. g. Russia) for the remote control because the smart phone has already the approvals
Summary = saving of ten thousands of USD

4.1.2 Access control to buildings
By using of ANT they can use Android Smart phones to open the doors by smart phone and with their ANT Smart card as well. If they do not need the option on smart phones, then they can go ahead with a license free protocol. Even if they are not sure which technology to use, I am able to show them a solution that will support ANT and the open source protocol.

4.1.2 Access control to buildings (further request)
This customer planned to use Bluetooth Low Energy to lock/unlock the door lock. There was just an ultra low power 2400 MHz link between access control systems to the door look necessary. The customer of the customer heard about Bluetooth Low Energy, never heard about ANT and never thought about that they use ultra low power 2400 MHz technology on an open source radio link protocol daily with the wireless mice, keypads and USB dongles at their laptops and notebooks daily.

5. Conclusion
– Bluetooth Low Energy is shipping Armadas of sales leads in the harbor called ANT on Nordic nRF24AP2 and Nordic nRF24LE01+ with open source protocol called Gazel.

Nevertheless, why people shall burn money for an amount of USD Bluetooth Low Energy license fee if they can get a better field approved technology like ANT on Nordic nRF24AP2 or Nordic nRF24LE01+ for less or even for free?

What will be your application? What will be your quantities? Who will be your competitor?
If you are interested in Bluetooth LE, ANT+ and Gazel, I can help with an offer for a bundle of evaluation kits that will support all three technologies, including antennas and design in aid for the ISM chips and antennas to your design.
Just send an email to harald.naumann (+at+) gsm-modem.de

#5 Mick on 03.04.11 at 12:25 am

Hi Nick,

Thanks for the great post.

Do you have any idea when approval of Zigbee SEP 1.1 will be formally announced and the revised specification released?

#6 nex on 03.10.11 at 10:30 pm

Harald Naumann; Very nice info;)

Thank You!

#7 Robert Cragie on 03.13.11 at 11:26 pm

@Harald: You are not comparing apples with apples. 6LoWPAN is not a full stack like ZigBee. It is an adaptation layer between IPv6 and 802.15.4. The IETF WG has also worked on ND for LoWPAN type networks. As Nick points out, the ZigBee Alliance are working on coalescing the open standards to produce a IP stack using 6LoWPAN to run on 802.15.4 networks which, along with the OTA upgrade of SEP 1.1, provides a clear migration path.

#8 Adam on 03.17.11 at 8:46 am

This Tourmaz Telran has a maximum data rate 50kbps and the synthesizer lockup time is quite long. Thus transmitting a given number of bytes doesnt necessary consume less energy than devices with higher data rate (like Bluetooth LE whic is 1Mbps) and a short synth lock time.

They also claim 20m at -4dBm in the sub-1GHz frequency range which is anything but long range. Their NSP protocol supports only 8 devices per base station in a star network. The TX output power is not defined at the current consumption numbers. This is a single device from one (startup) vendor.

So I dont understand why it was worth to mention among standards like BLE, ZigBee, Wi-Fi and ANT?

#9 Nick on 03.17.11 at 1:30 pm

Two year ago I suspect the same comment could have been levelled at ANT. Since then it’s gained momentum and I don’t think anyone can claim it should not be included. Over the years many different standards have bubbled up. A few have made it big time, some have remained in specialist niches, whilst others have disappeared. Toumaz has stayed around and doesn’t feel dissimilar to how ANT felt a few years back, which is why I included it. It will have a major struggle to climb into the same league, but I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss it yet.

So I will keep on pointing out the lesser known technologies. Many are very good at their specific niches. The challenge each of them faces is to see if they can expand beyond that, or whether they get subsumed by the big boys.

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About Creative Connectivity

Creative Connectivity is Nick Hunn's blog on aspects and applications of wireless connectivity. Having worked with wireless for over twenty years I've seen the best and worst of it and despair at how little of its potential is exploited.

I hope that's about to change, as the demands of healthcare, energy and transport apply pressure to use wireless more intelligently for consumer health devices, smart metering and telematics. These are my views on the subject - please let me know yours.

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