Tag Archives: zigbee

New M2M radio specs could challenge mobile networks

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Wide area of possibilities.

Two new low power standards for wireless machine-to-machine (M2M) communications have been released in the past couple of weeks. The Zigbee Alliance and the Weightless special interest group have published specifications for wide area networking standards that address the low power, low bit rate needs of many M2M applications. Both are initially targeting the smart grid sector, which is growing rapidly as electricity providers deploy tools to intelligently manage power distribution systems in real time.

The new Zigbee IP specification is the more interesting of the two. As the name implies, traffic is transmitted over a Zigbee mesh using the IPv6 standard, which means it can flow directly onto the Internet or into a plain vanilla local area network, at speeds up to 250 Kbps. That’s plenty fast enough to handle the short bursts of data that are typical of M2M applications.

The range of a single radio varies, with 30 meters being a common limit for indoor applications and 100 meters or more outdoors. The maximum, albeit difficult to achieve, range is somewhere around 1,000 meters. But the mesh architecture means that data can be relayed from device to device, extending the practical range of a network within a building or over a large outdoor area. Those additional hops can slow the throughput rate way down, but we’re talking about numeric sensor readings, not streaming video.

The Weightless protocol has a longer theoretical range – 10 kilometers – and a wider selection of data rates – 1 Kbps to 10 Mbps – in its trade space. It relies on a hub architecture, with low power field devices communicating back to base stations, which then convert the traffic to IP and send it upstream. It uses TV whitespace spectrum, which partly accounts for the longer range, while Zigbee relies on common unlicensed spectrum, for example in the 900 MHz and 2.4 GHz bands.

The differences between the two standards should allow for reasonably peaceful coexistence, since each should eventually settle into separate market segments. Deployment on smart grids will be an early test of whether either are practical for wide area, outdoor applications. If so, M2M devices designed around relatively expensive commercial mobile data networks and technology will see serious competition.

Oh, you mean a Maxwell Smart home

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“Chaos is an opportunity for people like me,” said Tom Kadlec, one of the founders of The Homeworks Group. They do the hard work of integrating and managing home automation systems for about a thousand subscribers. Both he and his partner have electrical engineering degrees, which is great for them but not so good for the home handyman who majored in, say, political science.

Come quick, 99. I’m surrounded by ARMed phones.

Protocol agnostic and easy to use: home automation needs heavy helpings of both if it’s to ever find its secret sauce. And the industry doesn’t seem to be much closer to solving it than it was a year ago. The missing piece is still a universal, consumer friendly gateway/hub device that can tie together different products using different protocols.

Last Thursday evening, the Wireless Communications Alliance rolled a discussion about home automation into its annual holiday party. Hosted by Qualcomm, the event featured four experts from different corners of the industry: two semiconductor makers, a market intelligence analyst and a custom installer.

“Our industry is based on a promise to solve all the problems,” IDC‘s Michael Palma admitted. “A lot depends on the service providers.” Gianluca Viale, from Renesas, offered patience rather than a solution, saying whatever it is, the silicon will still be there to support it whenever it happens.

Fabrice Hoerner, senior manager of technical marketing at Qualcomm, said they’re working on combining “multiple smarts:” smart connectivity, smart gateways, smart devices and a smart cloud.

“Everyone is building their own gateway, but there is an opportunity to bring some of them together,” Hoerner said. “If there is money to make, the industry will adjust to this potential.”

Maybe. But so far, home automation chaos has eighty-sixed home control.

No mass market home automation players yet

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Incremental advancement but no break through into the mass market for the home automation sector at CES this year. It remains a niche for hobbyists and specialty contractors.

Core technology companies, such as Qualcomm, NXP and Marvell, continue to support it. And there’s no shortage of companies offering, or at least developing, home automation products and services.

Part of the problem is the multitude of standards. Some device makers support more than one, but interoperability is the exception rather than the rule.

The missing piece is a home hub/gateway that’s both consumer friendly and network protocol agnostic.

You can find one or the other. For example, MiOS’s Vera router handles WiFi, Ethernet and Z-Wave natively, and can manage X10 and potententially other protocols via plug-ins. But its user interface is balky and basic. You need to be confortable with programming code to do anything ambitious.

Jakks Pacific’s baby monitor product is easy to use, and the wrist watch-style viewing screen is a nice innovation. But it’s a one trick pony. Canadian company 2D2C’s SafePlug is an interesting RFID-enabled solution, but they only have one item in their product line ready for market. Spain’s q1tecno is targeting the low cost end of the market with their Domotics Toys.

Home Protect, from France-based Moai, is a wonderfull piece of design work. They put their gateway and remote sensors into Tiki God cases that they claim will be plug-and-play simple to install. Unfortunately, it’s not ready for market yet. All they had to display at the show were solid plastic Tiki God statues.

Companies like Greenwave and Dutch manufacturer Freelux are positioning themselves as OEM suppliers to utilities. The advantage to that approach is that the electric company can provide customer support and incentives to use it. If the incentives are good enough, they can also dictate technology and network protocol choices to their subscribers. No one had any utility partnerships to announce, though.

Unnatural opportunity in M2M

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Consumer electronics products have a natural limit to growth. With only 7 billion or so people on the planet, even if some people buy more than one of any gizmo you can’t get past, say, 10 billion deployed units within the life cycle of any given product category.

Of course, that’s a theoretical limit, as a practical matter even one billion is wildly out of reach for the vast majority of products. The mobile phone has hit the 6 billion range, because it’s a personal item rather than a family purchase, such as, for example, a television.

There’s no such natural limit in the M2M (machine to machine) telecommunications space, though. There are billions of machines that will have need to communicate with each other in the future, and each of those machines have internal components that might need to swap data too. That puts M2M’s market potential in the tens of billions in the coming decade alone. According to Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg, it’ll be north of 40 billion by 2020.

That’s why early stage, core M2M technology companies are interesting to track. RFaxis is one such. Founded in 2008 with friends and family financing, this fabless semiconductor start-up makes front end chips for WiFi and ZigBee (and similar) radios.

Their secret sauce is a pure CMOS, single chip integrated front solution that combines antenna switching, power amplification on the transmit side, low noise amplification on the receive side and an interface with the transmit/receive module. RFaxis has attracted customers such as Gemtek, NXP and Freescale.

ZigBee-based smart meters are one of the segments that they see as having breakout potential for consumer-side M2M products. The opportunity begins with the smart meters themselves, but will quickly balloon once connected products, such as thermostats and energy consumption monitors, gain the backing of utility companies.

RFaxis currently has 27 employees and had revenue in the $2 to $3 million range last year. In 2012, they’re expecting to hit the $15 to $20 million range, which will, they think, make the venture self- supporting. Beyond that, there’s no natural limit.