Ten Wireless Standards, Sitting on the Wall…

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.


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.