How to defragment the Internet of Things

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece William Webb, CEO of the Weightless SIG, explains some of the challenges prohibiting the development of IoT, such as conflicting standards.

One of the key problems holding back the IoT is the lack of a single wireless chipset that can be dropped into any IoT product and that will provide connectivity wherever the device resides, while still meeting the requirement for 10 year battery life, ubiquitous coverage and ultra low-cost connectivity. Today we have cellular variants including GPRS, 3G, 4G and emerging LTE and NB-IoT solutions and unlicensed systems such as Sigfox, LoRa, Weightless, Ingenu and more. And beyond that, for systems that reside within the home we have Bluetooth, WiFi, Zigbee, Z-Wave and others. It is a mess and one that causes many manufacturers of devices that might benefit from connectivity to sit on the side-lines and await some kind of certainty as to who the winner will be.

History tells us that for each different type of wireless connectivity a single open standard emerges – Bluetooth for personal connectivity, WiFi for local area networks, cellular via 3GPP for mobile connectivity and so on. We can expect the same for IoT.

The problem is how to get to a consolidated solution from the current massively fragmented situation. Or more specifically, how to get a single chip solution that covers enough of the various technologies that device manufacturers can be sure it will connect wherever deployed. If such a chip were available it would be less of an issue if there were still fragmentation at the network level since this would be hidden from the end user and device manufacturer. The network fragmentation could then resolve itself through market dynamics over time with the technology most appealing to network operators winning out.

In principle, a silicon vendor could make such a chip today. They could talk to each of the different suppliers of technology, agree deals with each to licence the IPR necessary and then build a multi-function chip. In practice, negotiating all the deals and then building such a chip would be a huge task and the solutions themselves would likely change before the chip was finally designed and delivered. In practice, what is needed is a forum where all of the IPR issues can be resolved in one place, the different technologies harmonised sufficiently to make a single-chip solution feasible and the certification, branding and eco-system delivered. Such a forum needs to be a neutral not-for-profit standards body recognised by industry for its credibility and its ability to get things done.

There are two contenders. In the licensed world 3GPP is recognised as the entity that delivers 3G, 4G and in future 5G standards and is working on a range of standards for IoT deployment in licensed cellular frequencies. In the unlicensed world Weightless has delivered two key standards – Weightless-N and Weightless-P – and is becoming the equivalent of Bluetooth for machines. These two worlds are closer than might be initially anticipated. Mobile operators already make widespread use of unlicensed WiFi to off-load cellular data and are investigating using license assisted access (LAA) approaches where a mix of licensed and unlicensed frequencies can be used to carry their traffic. They have recognised that unlicensed access is an important part of their solution. The same will be true in IoT. Cellular operators will deploy both licensed and unlicensed IoT, using unlicensed to off-load traffic, provide them with greater flexibility and to deliver lower QoS services. To do this, chipsets that can move between the licensed 3GPP technologies and unlicensed Weightless technologies will be needed. By working together, 3GPP and Weightless can ensure that these standards have as much commonality as possible, that releases of standards are coordinated and that the silicon vendors have a clear signal to deliver such as solution.

That is a compelling vision. It requires all the various players to realise that their interests are best served by working through open standards bodies rather than engaging in open warfare. Consolidation of unlicensed players is underway within Weightless with announcements to follow soon and as more players buy into this strategy and vision it becomes ever-more inevitable.

In the world of wireless connectivity it is only open standards that are successful, with a dominant one or two in each different space. The same will be true in IoT.

William WebbWilliam Webb is CEO of the Weightless SIG, a not-for-profit standards body delivering IoT connectivity solutions.


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