Smart city wireless networks – do open standards matter? (Reader Forum)
The initial hype around smart cities has now passed, with applications moving beyond early pilots and proof-of-concepts into commercially deployed systems. There is one major factor present in all of those that have successfully made this transition – they are based on standards-based technologies rather than closed proprietary ones. In fact, vendors that have promoted proprietary technologies have struggled to gain traction, with the past few years having seen the fall of Harvard Technologies, Sigfox entering administration, and the much-hyped LoRaWAN now facing its own challenges (editor’s note; LoRaWAN has been recently accepted by the ITU as an open standard). What should cities be looking for when investing in a LPWA network to ensure they are protected for the future and yet don’t end up buying into a doomed or dead-end technology?
What do we mean by standards?
First of all, it is important to understand what we are talking about. Standards refer to a universally agreed set of open and interoperable technologies clearly defined and understood by all vendors and stakeholders within an ecosystem. Simply put, this means that you can guarantee that technology from any vendor will work with equipment from any other – including networks and devices or, as is typically the case with smart city networks, connected sensors. In the smart city world, the most important and successful standards to date are Wi-SUN and the 3GPP family of cellular IoT technologies – Long-Term Evolution for Machines (LTE-M) and Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT).
Why are standards important?
There are significant benefits for all players involved in developing standards-based technologies. The most obvious being avoiding lock-in by using proprietary technology from a single vendor, which in turn forces you to buy equipment from them only, which evolves into using the input and development of just that single vendor. In contrast to this, standards-based technologies are developed after gathering a huge amount of knowledge and input from across the ecosystem, and so are likely to be technically better.
But they also introduce competition between vendors, allowing customers to buy from multiple suppliers, with better prices and avoiding the potential pitfalls of single-vendor sourcing. There is no better example of the merits of this approach than the GSM family of technologies which caused a global explosion in the use of mobile phones, making them one of the most widespread adopted technologies on the planet. The adoption of this standard meant that mobile operators could purchase network infrastructure equipment from any vendor and mobile phones and devices to use that network from a huge range of manufacturers, safe in the knowledge that they would all work together.
This created a competitive market, reducing prices and catalysing innovation to the benefit of both mobile operators and end-consumers. This is an approach that has continued to bring benefits, and the whole ecosystem is aligned and involved in evolving cellular technologies and applications – just compare your 5G iPhone or Android device today with the earliest smartphones or Blackberrys from a decade or so ago.
What standards for smart cities?
There are significant advantages to working with standards-based wireless technologies such as the cellular IoT family which come from this GSM heritage and have been developed by 3GPP, and Wi-SUN. Both are fully open and backed by and developed in conjunction with a who’s-who of players from across the wireless industry.
Cellular IoT refers to the 3GPP standardised family of secure operator managed IoT networks deployed in licensed spectrum. These have been designed to support IoT applications that are low cost, use low data rates, require long battery lives and often operate in remote and hard to reach locations, and are based on existing cellular networks have evolved to deliver service to billions of new devices providing complete IoT connectivity. Due to the diversity of IoT application requirements, a single technology is not capable of addressing all the LPWA use cases. For this reason, the mobile industry has focused on two complementary licensed 3GPP standards: LTE-M and NB-IoT.
Wi-SUN or Wireless Smart Utility Network is a wireless communication standard that enables seamless connectivity between smart-grid devices. The standard powers large-scale outdoor IoT networks using wireless mesh networks, making it ideal for deployments in city environments as each node or sensor deployed helps build out the network. This is particularly useful in complex radio environments such as in built-up areas, where a proprietary network based on the traditional star model – which require extensive network planning to identify where gateways (access points / base stations) need to be placed in order to connect nodes – would struggle to provide enough coverage.
Wi-SUN also boasts extremely low levels of power consumption compared to other wireless communications, such as Wi-Fi, and also considerably better security than proprietary LPWA offerings. Much of the same considerations are equally true when applied to other components of smart city networks from interfaces to management standards including TALQ, LwM2M, uCIFI and D4i. Global interface standards for managing heterogeneous smart city device networks stimulate collaboration between different vendors and fosters competition at the same time, easing investment decisions for cities and public entities, which plan to invest in smart city applications.
The benefits of adopting a standards-based approach for your smart city wireless network are clear, with significant economic advantages the faster speed and better quality of innovation. In fact, the positives are so stark that it makes little to no sense to take on board the significant additional risk and costs of deploying a proprietary solution.