Creative Connectivity - the site for eHealth, telematics and wireless

Ten Wireless Standards, Sitting on the Wall…

October 20th, 2010 |  Published in Smart Energy  |  11 Comments

The Smart Metering industry is deperate to decide on a standard for short range communication.  The UK Goverment has rushed through its consultation with a deadline for a technical standard by the end of next year, and in the US, SGIP’s PAP02 group wants to do it even faster.  Whilst we need to start deploying devices, it concerns me that there’s a rush to make decisions with very little consideration of the relative merits of the different contenders.

There’s no shortage of contenders.  At the last count I came across ten short range wireless standards that all think they should be the winner.  Those include Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, ZigBee, Wavenis, Dash7, wireless MBUS, wireless KNX, DECT, Z-Wave and Bluetooth low energy.  And they’re just the industry developed standards.

What worried me even more than the obvious rush was a off-hand comment made in a European standards meeting that I attended earlier this year.  One of the people responsible for deciding on a common standard for Europe made the comment that “we’re not going to give any time to industry standards”.  The subject of her venom was ZigBee, but it’s a charge that I’m increasingly hearing levelled at all of the “industry” standards.  It appears there’s a perception amongst members of the older established Standards Development Organisations (SDOs) that because industry standards have not been produced by their traditional specification process, they’re not as good.  That’s a very dangerous approach to take.

wirelessbottles

Back in the good old days of standards, they were written by designated standards bodies and given numbers that made it obvious where they came from.  In the US that included ANSI, in Europe it was Cenelec and internationally these national standards transitioned into ISO.  These bodies have their processes, which they applied, and were generally blessed with participation from governmental bodies, who offered the carrot of making them mandatory national requirements.

Communications technologies were served by ETSI (based in the south of France) and the IEEE in the U.S.  Both largely followed the same principles, but with less governmental involvement and a slightly larger contribution from industry.  The IEEE rather sullied its reputation within a number of its wireless LAN standards working groups, some of which descended into farce with different commercial interests vying for influence within a specification.  At its worst it resulted in complete specification groups dissolving, with different antagonists actively competing in the market with non-interoperable systems (802.15.3, better known as UWB being the classic example.)  At its lowest point, meeting degenerated into febrile discussions of points of order, which have more in common with a Monty Python script than a standards group.  A good example still resides on the IEEE server.  It’s best read with upper class twit accents after a few beers.

Exasperated by a lack of progress, along with specifications that included no test or certification process and had so many options that real implementations failed to interoperate, the short range wireless community decided to bypass these specification groups and set up their own, targeted at providing interoperable market standards.  The first was Bluetooth, but it was quickly followed by the Wi-Fi Alliance and ZigBee.  All three required interested parties to pay for the privilege of contributing, and placed far greater importance on the Intellectual Property they were developing as well as mandating certification of products that used their standards. 

The efficacy of their approach has been demonstrated by combined sales of billions of devices, with a high level of usability, interoperability and consumer awareness.  But that rankles within some of the traditional standards organisations, who tend to turn their noses up and brand them as being less rigorous.  A pragmatic observer might conclude that their denial has less to do with the quality of the resulting standards and more to do with the fact that industry generated standards provide fewer jobs and jollies for consultants and academics.

The lady in Cenelec epitomised that approach.  I suspect that when she wants a new car she doesn’t wait ten years for a local university to design one for her.  Nor delay buying new shoes or a new PC.  She’ll probably be happy to go out and buy something that has been designed by industry.  Yet if the European Commission follows her prejudice towards industry standards for smart energy and accepts an attitude of denying the generally higher level of rigour they provide, it will condemn the population of Europe to billions of euros of wasted expenditure by opting for an unsuitable standard.

It might be amusing were it not for the fact that people like this in Government committees have the power to determine how we attempt to connect hundreds of millions of smart meters.  And the ability to walk blamelessly away from the resulting mess and ensuing waste of billions of euros.

The same attitude is evident in the US as well, where NIST and SGIP are looking at appropriate wireless technologies.  Except that in this case the industry standards groups saw it coming and are being a little more devious.

If you look at their scoping documents you’ll see little mention of Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or ZigBee.  Instead you’ll find references to 802.15.1, 802.11 and 802.15.4 – all of them IEEE standards.  Which, as we saw above, are considered to be “real”.  The reason they’re there is that they’re related to the industry standards.  The Wi-Fi Alliance base their standards on the 802.11 wireless LAN standards, but add a compliance program and security implementations, as well as throwing out what is irrelevant or doesn’t work.  ZigBee is a mesh network that sits on top of the radio and MAC specified in 802.15.4.  But none of the ZigBee spec exists within 802.15.4.  It’s like advertising your house for sale based purely on the type of foundations it has.  In the case of Bluetooth, no part of it was ever developed within the IEEE, but an early version of the standard was reformatted into an IEEE template, largely so that it could represent itself as an IEEE standard.  That is what is being quoted here, although the version specified in 802.15.1 is hopelessly out of date.

So all of these claims to be an IEEE standard are at best of questionable veracity.  I doubt any of the standards is particularly happy with having to do it, but it’s something they’re being forced to do by a level of bigotry and self-interest from the old fashioned standards organisations.

The real concern is that if this subterfuge fails, national standards bodies may prefer standards that are more expensive, less tested (hence potentially less secure), later to market, and which will never be integrated into the devices that consumers want to use to control their homes, namely their PCs and phones.  There is a lot of pressure to be chosen as “THE” standard from within the smaller standards organisations which have taken the traditional route.  They’re aware that if they fail, they will probably wither and die.  And there are a lot more than just ten contenders on that list.  You’ll see names you’ve probably never heard of. 

Amongst these, ETSI TG ERM 28 is an intriguing, but popular option amongst the industry standard denialists.   It’s currently in the outline stage, yet it is still being taken seriously.   Putting the reality hat on, it takes around six years for a wireless standard to reach maturity from this stage, yet ETSI is seriously considering embarking on that route.  That means we’d be unlikely to see the first meters using it until around 2017, with no large scale deployment until after 2020.  At a recent Smart Metering conference in London, Elster, a manufacturer of smart meters, estimated that the cost of delaying deployment by two years (from now) would be over $3 billion in lost efficiency.  Yet here we have advocates within a European standards process that are contemplating an option that would delay deployment until a date after the EU mandate to have converted every meter.  It’s the new Topsy-Turvey land.

There needs to be a far more open approach to choosing the communications standards.  The current method seems to have lost touch with reality, with more to do with prejudice and preserving an outdated status quo.  If the world really is going to benefit from smart metering we need to make pragmatic choices based on what can do the job, not on petty jealousies from ill-informed civil servants.

The fact is that the most relevant standards are probably those that have already been deployed and tested in the real world.  They may not be perfect for the job, but if that is the case, let’s work with these standards groups to evolve them, rather than rejecting them outright and imposing an untested solution.  The world is taking smart energy seriously because those involved understand that the energy issues it is attempting to solve or ameliorate are real.  It’s time for some of those involved in the wireless selection process to get real themselves.

11 comments ↓

#1 Pat Burns on 10.21.10 at 2:17 pm

Nick,

Very thoughtful piece – thanks for taking the time to spell it all out. I think it is worth mentioning that the approach of the DASH7 Alliance vis-a-vis the ISO 18000-7 standard is to submit all approved specifications to ISO for anyone to access, so our approach is to make the ISO process (which somehow did not get a mention here but is really more of an “international” standards organization than IEEE :-)) work better, not to replace it.

When compared to the other nine technologies you mention in the piece, DASH7 is the most “true” to the standard it is represents. E.g. the PHY and MAC layers of DASH7 adhere 1:1 with the ISO 18000-7 standard. The alliance augments the ISO 18000-7 standard by also referencing *other* ISO or IEEE standards for complementary features like sensors and security that are not spelled out in the ISO 18000-7 standard itself. I know of no other similar effort to adhere so rigorously to a standards-based referencing process by any of the competing technologies mentioned above. The only reason we call it DASH7 is that it’s easier for the world to remember the hyphen and the number “seven” at the end rather than the full ISO/IEC 18000(dash seven).

What all 10 of these technologies are in some stage of appreciating is that interoperability is ultimately all the customer cares about. Fortunately for DASH7, we operate on a single global frequency (433.92 Mhz) with a single PHY and single MAC, no application profiles, and a very small protocol stack size. Few others can boast of such an interoperability story or the test and certification procedures (which also conform to the ISO 18047 standard!) we have built in collaboration with MET Labs.

I would welcome a spirited debate on your blog with reps from some of the other alliances/technologies mentioned in this post!

#2 Mahendra Tailor on 10.26.10 at 2:31 pm

Nick

Which of the 10 technologies will eventually end up in a mobile phone, so that the other end of the wireless connection is always immediately at hand?

That addresses what a consumer will ultimately care about. Convenience, convenience and finally convenience.

I can only think of wifi and bluetooth out there in a mobile phone.

#3 Nick on 10.26.10 at 8:09 pm

It’s always difficult to peer into the crystal ball and say which technologies will make it and which won’t. As you’ve stated, Bluetooth is already there and Wi-Fi is doing well, especially in smartphones. Of course, doing well isn’t the same as being endemic. Getting into smartphones is one thing; moving down the model range to low end phones is a lot more difficult. Even today, Bluetooth is only in just over 65% of total handsets, and Wi-Fi probably in not much more than 10%. I’ve seen reports that 14% of new models contain Wi-Fi and close to 50% of smartphones, which suggests the corresponding figure for Wi-Fi is probably around 10% of the total phone market. Increasing the penetration is largely down to price, and here Bluetooth holds a significant advantage, as evidenced by the recent report from DigiTimes that confirms that the cost of a Bluetooth chip has now fallen below $1. http://bit.ly/dollarBT.

But chip price alone isn’t enough. Short range wireless needs protocol stacks, application software, more processing power and applications. And they inevitably bring higher costs through a need for more customer support. These elements become more significant barriers as you move down the food chain to low end phones. So getting into every phone is a far more challenging ambition compared o being in every smartphone.

That’s a path the two successful technologies are taking seriously. But what about the others? DECT has been there before – Ericsson had dual DECT / GSM phones back in the 1990s, which failed to take off. Bluetooth offered the same mix of cordless and cellular with is Cordless Telephony Profile, which was shunned by the industry. So it’s unlikely we’ll see DECT reappear in a phone.

Radio standards that need an additional antenna, because they run at a frequency that’s not already supported are also out of the running. The average smart phone has over a dozen antennae already and manufacturers are keen to ensure that no more appear. The iPhone4 debacle is a good example of what happens when you have too many and forget the RF design basics. Which makes it unlikely that we’ll see Wavenis, Dash7, Z-Wave or Wireless KNX, none of which normally run at 2.4GHz. That leaves the other 2.4GHz standards, which could be incorporated, if they could persuade the handset vendors that there was a reason to do so. But today it’s not obvious what that reason would be?

There’s a number 11, which I left out of the article because it’s not chasing the smart energy market, which is ANT. ANT has managed to make some headway into phones, as it’s supported in a multi-radio chip supplied by TI. As a result there are around 15 handsets you can buy today which contain an ANT radio. So far, none of them include a protocol stack, so you can’t use the radio, but it’s a big step forwards.

Which all suggests that the handset will continue to provide an exclusive home for Bluetooth (along with Bluetooth low energy) and Wi-Fi, but not much else. Having said which, handset manufacturers are pragmatic. If one of the other standards comes up with a compelling application on a large enough scale, it may well make it into the handset. But so far, none have managed to do so.

#4 Nick on 10.26.10 at 8:10 pm

Please take up the challenge and join in the debate.

#5 JP on 11.01.10 at 10:41 am

“The iPhone4 debacle is a good example of what happens when you have too many and forget the RF design basics. Which makes it unlikely that we’ll see Wavenis, Dash7, Z-Wave or Wireless KNX, none of which normally run at 2.4GHz.”

433 MHz radios can actually run quite well on 13.56 MHz NFC antennas, with slight modification. Wavenis and DASH7 both run in the 433 MHz band. Moreover, multiplexing the 2.45 GHz antenna does not actually work that well, especially beyond the BT and Wifi it already has to support. There are claims that Wifi in the near future will be predominantly at 5.8GHz, thus relieving some load on 2.45GHz, but the signal propagation is so poor at that frequency that it doesn’t work too well for devices like smartphones.

The other thing to consider is that many of these technology serve very different purposes. ANT is competitive with low energy Bluetooth, but not many of the others on the list. If there is one technology that finds a great killer app, the market will drive its inclusion in handsets. So far, Wifi’s killer app is free mobile internet at coffee shops (etc) and bluetooth’s is tetherless headsets. They don’t really serve any further purpose. All it takes is one killer app, and the semiconductor manufacturers will find a way to integrate it.

#6 Marcus Greenhill on 11.01.10 at 11:46 am

For Smart Metering / Energy apps, is routing the metering data via a phone (and therefore via whichever LPR standard the phone supports) really the best option, or is it the only option?

Obviously phones / smart phones are out there in abundance, and it would make sense to use them as a gateway, but there is always the issue of pairing / connecting your phone to the smart meter. If the Smart energy profile (or whatever it is eventually called) can seamlessley connect to the phone, without any user input, then a daily or weekly energy reading would be relatively straight forward. However, if the user needs to start pairing and inputting codes to their phone etc, then there are going to be problems – tech support being just one of them… “Hi… i’m trying to connect my phone to my meter and it won’t work…”

WiFi could be a good solution, as home WiFi routers are getting more popular, but there are the same inherent problems – how does the meter establish a secure connection to the router? (not to mention the h/w cost at the meter).

It may be that for users who don’t want to use a Smart phone as the gateway device, a separate piece of hardware would be used in the home – a LPR link from the meter to an Ethernet dongle that plugs into the back of the WiFi router maybe (although to me, this sounds like madness – a radio, with another radio plugged in the back!)? or a LPR link to a POTS dongle plugged into the phone line? These could implement the same radio standard as the meter->-mobile phone, albeit pushing the cost up as extra h/w will need to be introduced… although a $5 cost for a phone line dongle should be acheivable (is this too much though?)

The other option of course is to use a data concentrator at the end of each street, but this is a completely new can of worms.

I think the question is how the customers will ultimately use the technology in real life scenario’s… if a very simple, reliable & low cost mechanism can be acheived, then the relevant radio standard will present itself natrually. As Mahendra said, it’s all about convenience.

With this in mind, BTLe / BT presnet themselves. They are already in the phone, competent users can use a phone or PC as a gateway, and less competent users can get a free issue Phone Line Dongle.

Regards,

Marcus

#7 Harald Naumann on 11.27.10 at 4:15 pm

> I can only think of wifi and bluetooth out there in a >mobile phone.

Mahendra,

For end of next year smart phones with ANT and Bluetooth LE are promised. Who will win the race? The well-proven ANT or the new Bluetooth LE?

ANT dongles for the iPhone are available. In addition there are ANT-modems with USB and Mini/Micro SD interface on the market.

ANT is a low-power wireless networking protocol. It has the same audience like Bluetooth Low Energy. In contrast to Bluetooth LE the ANT protocol allows full mesh network topology. Furthermore it is already widespread in sports and healthcare. The ANT alliance has more than 300 members (e.g. Adidas, Garmin or Timex). The member no. 300 was the manufacturer of phones, Sony Ericsson (press release http://ow.ly/35WZ5).

If I am right, then at Medica in Germany Dynastream the developer of ANT showed a prototype of a mobile phone with ANT. Years ago there was a ZigBee powered mobile phone, put not successful. [You are right – it was being demonstrated on the ANT stand – Nick]

Next Christmas we will have access to mobile phones with Bluetooth, Broadcast radio, WIFI, Bluetooth LE and ANT. Some phones already offer access to broadcast TV as well.

#8 Yoav Netzer on 04.22.11 at 6:24 pm

BT is stated to support up to 7 active connections while BLE only 4.
Q1: Can more connections be paired simultaneously, then?
Q2: How many can DASH7 support?
– would that require SimpliciTI?

#9 Nick on 04.22.11 at 9:58 pm

There are two factors that determine the maximum number of connections – the addressing space used by the standard for local connections and the memory available within the chips to store the relevant information to maintain each connection. Depending on the security, frequency hopping method, addressing, etc., each connection may require a fair amount of memory, so even where a standard only supprots a few connections, chips may still struggle to accomodate that.

Classic Bluetooth has an address limitation that limits it to seven active connections at any one time. In practice single chip solutions may not even be able to support this, so the practical limit may be three or four unless you have a separate host processor.

Bluetooth low energy extends the address space to allow several billion connections. However, as these are even smaller chips than for classic Bluetooth, current ones only support four or five connections. I’d expet to see that grow to between sixteen and sixtyfour in the second generation of chips.

I’m not close enough to the DASH7 chips to give an estimate of what actual chips support, but as they’re even more resource constrained than Bluetooth low energy, I’d expect to see it down around three or four. I’d welcome more informed comment.

In all cases, where the spec allows, you can build devices with bigger processors and more memory to cope with more connections. But this tends to defeat the whole point of it being a low power standard.

#10 Pat Burns on 05.06.11 at 9:26 pm

Nick: Just saw this but looks like the response was posted separately at dash7.org:

http://dash7.org/blog/?p=2134&cpage=1#comment-6371

Cheers,

Pat

#11 A UK Roadmap for Smart Metering HANs | Creative Connectivity on 02.03.12 at 4:27 pm

[…] but that’s not been their first priority.  Goverments also have another problem, which is their politics, as there are certain civil servants involved with smart metering in Europe who have very limited […]

Leave a Comment

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.

You can Subscribe via RSS »