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IoT Network Reboots Its Efforts

Weightless SIG seeks unifying role in LPWA

SAN JOSE, Calif. — The Weightless Special Interest Group is rebooting its effort to drive open standards in low-power, wide-area (LPWA) networks for the Internet of Things. A new startup has taken up the charge for its Weightless-P specification while the SIG aims to carve out a new role as a forum to unify the sector.

Whether either initiative gains traction, SIG chief executive William Webb makes the case that it’s still in the early days for a highly fragmented sector of LPWA networks. To realize predictions of 50 billion IoT nodes by 2020, vendors need to deploy nearly 13 million a day, but so far, market leaders in LPWA such as Sigfox and LoRa each have connected an estimated 7–10 million total to date.

“We are bumbling along the bottom,” Webb said.

Market watchers at Machina Research estimate that Sigfox now has public networks in the works or running in 26 countries, with LoRa following at 19 and Ingenu at 10. At CES, many top cellular carriers and module makers announced that they were ready to start trials of the Category-M version of LTE geared for IoT.

“We project [that,] as of the end of 2017, the LPWA networks using unlicensed spectrum will collectively cover 32% of the world’s population with 11% for licensed LPWA,” which includes both cellular operators and other spectrum holders such as M2M Spectrum Networks, said analyst Aapo Markkanen.

“The message we are hearing very strongly is that the biggest problem in LPWA is the fragmentation of the industry,” said Webb. “If you are making a sensor what wireless chip do you put in it? Most people stop because they don’t want to use the wrong one.”

In this environment, “the way ahead for us is to transfer our standards into ETSI and let Weightless act like the Wi-Fi Alliance, a public face for the ecosystem and a forum for regulator input and future directions,” he added.

ETSI’s Task Group 28 has an informal subgroup called Low Throughput Networks (LTN) that will act as a “document rapporteur.” It expects to release a suite of LPWA specifications by the end of the year.

Sigfox, Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute, and Weightless members such as Telensa are expected to make submissions to the ETSI process, which opens in March. The Weightless SIG will submit its specs to the group.

”Our intention is to produce a single LTN standard…that will consist in a set of three documents--LTN use cases and system requirements, LTN architecture and LTN protocols and interfaces,” said Benoit Ponsard, a representative from Sigfox that runs the ETSI subgroup.

“I suspect that [ETSI] will have a family of standards, and you can argue that that will defeat the aim of ending fragmentation, but we hope that a single-chip design could implement all of them, although not all at the same time,” Webb said.

Just how the Weightless SIG would champion those specs remains to be seen. So far, it has tried and failed to get three LPWA networks off the ground. Its third effort, Weightless-P, is now being rebooted by a startup in Taiwan.

Startup Ubiik hopes to roll out hardware in February for Weightless-P, the Weightless SIG’s third effort at defining a spec for LPWA networks. The technology has an edge over current market leaders, Sigfox and LoRa, that will help it find traction in the still-emerging sector of IoT nets, said Fabien Petitgrand, chief technologist of the startup based in Taiwan.

“We don’t expect significant revenue from meaningful deployment [of Weightless-P] for the next potentially two years,” he said. “Weightless-P is coming later to the game, but we are only at the beginning of this LPWA market.”

In a white paper, Ubiik makes the case that Weightless-P is the lowest-cost approach to applications such as smart meters. The technology could serve an area the size of San Diego with 542 base stations at a total cost of about $2.7 million per year. By contrast, Sigfox and LoRa would need 1,900 and 29,000 base stations and cost $9.5 million and $14.4 million a year, respectively, it said.

Ubiik will initially ship outdoor base stations for about $1,400 and indoor versions costing a few hundred dollars, based on Xilinx Zynq FPGAs and ARM Cortex-A9 controllers. Its end node uses an ARM Cortex-M3 and draws less than 1 W. Multiple users are expected to start field trials with the gear before June.

“The real success [of Weightless-P] will be if we can bring on more players,” said Webb. “We’re talking to quite a few semiconductor companies, and a number of them like Weightless as a vehicle for LPWA.”

The current effort marks the third change in direction for the group. It started in 2010 to work on a Weightless-W specification for the 700-MHz “white spaces” TV bands with technology from startup Neul.

When it became clear that those bands would not become available as expected, the group developed an ultra narrowband spec, called Weightless-N, using technology from NWave. It was a uni-directional link aimed at lowest cost and data rate to compete directly with Sigfox in the 800- to 900-MHz bands. But NWave struggled to gain traction, and Weightless ultimately transferred the technology to ETSI.

— Rick Merritt, Silicon Valley Bureau Chief, EE Times

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