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Choosing LPWAN technology for open standards

Choosing LPWAN technology for open standards

An article by Alan Woolhouse, Chair of the Weightless SIG Marketing Working Group. This is the final article of a series of exclusive posts dedicated to LPWAN technologies and solutions.

Choosing IoT connectivity technology needs careful consideration of multiple technical and commercial factors linked closely to individual use cases. Different applications favour different technologies so that what the product is designed to do is a critical factor in the decision. Features and benefits often conflict and need to weighed carefully in the decision so these articles distil the key characteristics that define an IoT connectivity technology to help you identify those important to your particular use cases.

Here are the parameters that we think define the strength of an IoT connectivity technology:

  • Capacity
  • Quality of Service
  • Range
  • Reliability
  • Battery life
  • Security
  • Cost
  • Proprietary vs Standard

standard keyAs we reach the final article in this series we turn our attention to the issue of proprietary technologies vs open standards. Open standards offer a fundamentally different business proposition to proprietary technologies with attendant benefits that are simultaneously compelling but frequently dismissed, certainly in the early rush to market. Let’s have a look now at why the Weightless SIG exists.

True open standard

Historically only open standards have delivered sustainable wireless technologies – for good reasons. True open standards support multiple vendors which stimulates ongoing innovation and, through greater competition, lower costs. True open standards provide for access to royalty free IP to minimise production costs. Open standards ensure interoperability between manufacturers. And robust, multiple, diverse, peer reviewed design teams from across industry leads to innovations that bring reliability and high performance to the technology at a fraction of the cost of alternatives with equivalent specification. Weightless technology has been designed on a clean slate basis, from the ground up to offer optimised performance at an unbeatable price point and avoids any legacy or backward compatibility concerns.

Why standards are important

In the world of wireless communications there are no successful proprietary technologies. Many have tried, but eventually open standards always win out. There are many reasons for this, but one of the key ones is the “two-ends” problem – every wireless link has two parts, the transmitter and the receiver, or the base station and the device. Typically, the company or person buying the base station is different from the one buying the device and neither wants to be committed to buying from a particular company due to decisions made by others. Open standards allow a vibrant eco-system of suppliers for both sides of the link, enabling each party to choose their preferred supplier. There are many other good reasons for the success of standards. Standards encourage competition which results in innovative products at lower prices. By enabling a range of companies it reduces the risk of obsolescence due to a company deciding to no longer support a product. Regulators are typically more inclined to find radio spectrum for standards compared to proprietary products and the route to type approval is simpler.

Getting the technical part right

Of course, it is not enough to just have a standard, it must be technically excellent, otherwise proprietary solutions might just appear more compelling…

Given that the same engineers design proprietary products as well as standards, then sound technical design should be possible. However, politics and competition can sometimes get in the way. There may be a desire for backwards compatibility which can compromise a solution. Companies in the standards body may compete to embed their own IPR in the standard even if it is not fully relevant and standards bodies find resolving conflict difficult. The result can often be a standard that has multiple modes and variants, few of which are strictly needed, but which add cost to the device. Often the best standards are developed either by small standards organisations where there are few competing manufacturers, or where consensus can be reached outside of the standards body in a mature manner and then all players work constructively around the agreed direction.

Getting the support from industry

While small standards bodies can quickly and effectively develop excellent standards they can then suffer from insufficient industry presence with the result that there are few manufacturers of equipment.

If the number of manufacturers falls too low then the benefits of multiple sources of supply might not be realised and the standard will fail to meet some of the key objectives of operators and end users. Hence, it is necessary to stimulate a vibrant eco-system with competing suppliers in all stages of the value chain. Manufacturers can tend to sit on the fence, waiting to see what their competitors do before committing to a standard whose success is unknown. Successful standards are those where a few key players are persuaded to publicly state their support and investment plans, persuading their competitors to come off of the fence. Once this process starts it rapidly becomes a virtuous spiral with each additional company that joins stimulating a number of its competitors and suppliers.

Getting those first manufacturers on board requires persuasion, leadership and a good set of contacts. It typically takes a few individuals who can evangelise the standard effectively to the decision makers in industry and who can bring together a critical mass of key players. Having the strong support of a few high-profile and widely respected individuals is key to success.

Marketing the standard

Where standards are used by consumers they need to have a strong brand. We know to ask for “Wi-Fi” and to connect devices via “Bluetooth”. Few know that Wi-Fi is based on the IEEE802.11 standard or Bluetooth on IEEE802.15. Successful standards have a simple and memorable name and logo. Marketing of the name is more often performed by the companies making products rather than the standards body. However, the standards body needs to ensure consistency of message, simple inter-working of devices and occasionally to orchestrate concerted campaigns. Marketing is typically performed poorly by the “classic” standards bodies such as ETSI and IEEE which tend to focus more on the technical standardisation work.

Just one standard

Standards only function effectively when there is a single standard for each application space – Bluetooth for personal connectivity, Wi-Fi for local area networking, cellular for wide-area connectivity and so on…

Where there have been standards battles such as between 4G and WiMax sales tend to suffer until the battle is resolved in favour of one standard. While competition within standards is highly desirable, competition between standards breeds uncertainty and a concern of making an investment in a standard that loses out.

Getting to just one standard is often problematic. There are many standards bodies that are inclined to compete and often tension between small bodies able to have a clear agenda and focus, and larger bodies able to attract multiple large companies. If a company is unable to embed its IP in one standard it may start another where it believes it can have more control. Standards are relatively easy to start and very difficult to stop. Eventually, one standard gains an edge on the others and then very quickly becomes dominant. This is because as soon as one standard appears to be winning, companies tend to coalesce around it and in doing so its success becomes self-fulfilling.

IoT and standards

Do we have the right standardisation in place for IoT? The current situation is far from a single clear standard with multiple options in licensed and unlicensed spectrum. There is fragmented support from industry with most sitting on the fence and little clear marketing to consumers as to the IoT brand. Little wonder that IoT is not currently gaining significant traction and connected devices are only a tiny percentage of predicted numbers.

What Weightless offers

Weightless is the definitive LPWAN technology standard :

  • Carefully crafted technical standards that are not constrained by backward-compatibility nor bloated by compromises.
  • Increasing support from across the eco-system.
  • A clear name and branding that is memorable and appeals well to consumers.
  • The marketing capability and leadership to enable the virtuous circle that inexorably leads to a single worldwide solution.
  • Royalty free (FRAND-Z non-assert licensing scheme) IP minimising production costs.
The author: Alan Woolhouse is Chair of the Weightless SIG Marketing Working Group – weightless.orgcontact: alan.woolhouse (at) weightless.org
The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of IoT Business News.
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