Home5G‘Start of an IoT mega-cycle’ – Silicon Labs talks Matter, Amazon Sidewalk, Wi-SUN

‘Start of an IoT mega-cycle’ – Silicon Labs talks Matter, Amazon Sidewalk, Wi-SUN

As US IoT chipmaker Silicon Labs opens the (virtual) doors to its third Works With event (September 12-14), and readies a rush of new product releases (coverage incoming), Enterprise IoT Insights caught up with Ross Sabolcik, the firm’s general manager for industrial and commercial, to talk about the rest of the IoT space. Because, by accident or error, and by definition as well, this title tends to get stuck on the other side of the IoT tracks.

Silicon Labs, says Sabolcik, is in a unique position to bring the IoT market together in a three-day web affair to discuss the latest tech and trends, and to plot their convergence for a new era of IoT growth. “We are at the start of an IoT mega-cycle of sustained growth as IoT penetrates different sectors,” he says. “Deployments are expanding, driven by companies seeing major returns on their investments. So this is structural and long term.”

The Austin firm’s position is unique, the story goes, because it covers a lot of ground; its wireless portfolio ranges from transceivers to multi-band systems-on-chip (SoCs), plus other silicon devices and software, to connect over Bluetooth, Matter, old-school proprietary sub-GHz and 2.4 GHz tech, Thread, Wi-Fi, Wi-SUN, and Zigbee. “We are partaking in all the major technologies we think are critical to the future of IoT,” says Sabolcik.

Sabolcik – Matter and Sidewalk will go from the home and hard into industry; Wi-SUN will go from utilities into cities

There is no reference here, one might note, to cellular IoT (LTE-M, NB-IoT), or to LoRaWAN, or to Sigfox, say, whose authors and promoters, with deeper pockets or louder marketing, have made such a soap opera out of the IoT game in recent years – and which have occupied more column inches in these pages. Equally, some of these others have tended towards consumer IoT applications, where Enterprise IoT Insights starts to lose interest.

But there is a creeping crossover between these markets, as well, reckons Sabolcik. To start, the Matter protocol, running on Thread, makes the smart home a ‘level playing field’ for the IoT ecosystem, to develop gadgetry that just works, regardless of the underlying connectivity technology – creating a bigger congregation for the likes of Amazon, Apple, and Google to rule over with their home voice assistants.

“It can be a game-changer on the home side,” says Sabolcik. But Matter, set to appear this Autumn, is intended for the commercial space eventually, too; Sabolcik references large-scale future-deployments to connect circuit breakers, lighting, air-con systems. “The first release is focused on the home, but the CSA is working to define these other use cases, as well. So Matter will be important in the commercial side – it will just lag behind a little.”

It is the same with Amazon’s community IoT outreach project, Sidewalk, which runs on a proprietary sub-GHz version of LoRa, and further bloats the Bellevue firm’s sphere of influence, outwards from the home, into the yard, into street, onto lorries, into warehouses. “It starts from the home, tied to voice assistants. But the aspiration is much bigger, and, longer term, Sidewalk is definitely being evaluated in the industrial space.”

Sabolcik adds: “But it is kind of early-days, in that regard.” Nevertheless, these questions, about the enterprise ambitions of Sidewalk and Matter, will be touched on this week at the Works With event, addressed directly in keynotes by Amazon and the Connectivity Standards Alliance (CSA), among others. “We are bringing together a lot of the premier suppliers and customers in the space to talk about what is really shaping the future of IoT.”

He explains: “Our role is not just to provide these technologies, and the stacks and support around them, but to partner with the industry leaders and engage early in those ecosystems – to play a role to shape where they are going.” Sidewalk and Matter will be addressed by Silicon Labs, too, in a number of product announcements (incoming). But the event, and the company story, goes further than these modish twin headline acts.

To an extent, their paths follow a familiar route, from the family home, into multi-occupancy blocks, into retail environments, municipal infrastructure like lighting, stations, and other shared venues. This is the way Z-Wave went, nominally. “Z-Wave was targeting home installations from the get-go… [But] it has a really strong footprint in multi-dwelling units and professional instals, as well,” says Sabolcik.

Zigbee, the best established of all the IoT-native tech Silicon Labs supports, and the one it has had the biggest hand in, as a member of the original ecosystem alliance that sired the CSA to develop Matter as a unifying force in the residential market, has straddled the line, too. “Zigbee saw a big focus on the home,” he says; but Zigbee’s share of indoor/outdoor lighting, meanwhile, stands at 30-40 percent, to grow at 20-40 percent per year in terms of value, reckon analysts.

The eureka moment for IoT is in the home, with Matter. “Many of the large ecosystem players have pursued a walled garden approach; there is a realisation now that those ecosystems have to be much more compatible for the market to grow,” says Sabolcik. But for Silicon Labs – and for Sabolcik, handling its industrial/commercial division, plus for Enterprise IoT Insights, focusing on harder-nosed applications of sensor tech – there is as much interest in Wi-SUN.

Wi-SUN, an acronymization of ‘wireless smart utility network’, is based on the IEEE 802.15.4g SUN standard, approved in March 2012, and is geared to untangle the complex web of technologies that have grown up within smart grids, invariably around proprietary connectivity systems. In this way, it is analogous with Matter, just going the other way – from utilities, into cities, into homes. It has been quietly succeeding as a low-power mesh alternative to the likes of NB-IoT and LoRaWAN, which might be characterised as noisy neighbours in the smart cities space.

The Wi-SUN Alliance, which includes Silicon Labs, plus the likes of Itron and Landys+Gir (previously pushing their own 802.15.4 based proprietary IoT tech), has been working to get a global set of manufacturers to agree on common IPv6 specifications for comms gear for smart metering, demand/response systems, and grid automation. “We are seeing a big push on Wi-SUN; many of the RFQs from utilities now stipulate that Wi-SUN is included.”

Sabolcik draws the distinction with LoRa/LoRaWAN, vying for action in new smart metering, and even smart grid systems. “You can’t build a product for LoRa unless you get a licence from Semtech,” he says. “It is not an open standard. Wi-SUN is an open IEEE standard, so anybody can build products. Which is why we have placed our bets on Wi-SUN in these large, utility networks, as well as in other smart city installations.”

Wi-SUN features, with Matter and Sidewalk, in the latest product releases from Silicon Labs. The explanation, about open standards, is why the firm is engaged also (somewhat ad hoc) with smaller IoT startup technologies, notably TS-UNB/MIOTY, Wize, and Wirepas. “It does not require such heavy lifting,” he says. “In the utilities space, historically, every customer has built its own protocol. So we have a flexible platform that makes it easy to run these protocols on top of our radios.”

He reverts to the previous comparison and, on request, ropes in cellular IoT as well, and suggests LoRa/LoRaWAN might just fall between two stools – with utilities, at least. “LoRa has done an outstanding job on the marketing. But with metering in particular, it comes down to the total cost of ownership. If you’re going to deploy a few thousand meters in a small community, it probably doesn’t make sense to install and run your own network.

“So cellular has a really strong play there, and NB-IoT can help with battery-powered water and gas meters. But if you scale to hundreds of thousands or millions of nodes, you need your own network – because the cost is lower. You can’t be paying for per-node access to an established network. Yes, there’s a fee for putting in base stations, but then your access goes to zero. And those large instals have traditionally used proprietary IoT standards.”

He goes on: “But they are moving to Wi-SUN. Really, Wi-SUN is like the largest IoT network you’ve never heard of –  just because the marketing has been less strong. But there are over a hundred million nodes in the field, and lots of traction. The Indian government has just approved Wi-SUN as the preferred field area tech for its latest smart metering project. Tokyo Electric is doing a metering refresh, from 2025, and Wi-SUN looks like it’s in pole for that.”

But backup, a moment; what about that LoRaWAN comparison? Why is Wi-SUN preferred by big utilities for big deployments, and by big utility providers like Itron and Landys+Gir? “It is more limited. It is star topology with really low data rates, typically – like 10 kilobits per second. Whereas Wi-SUN has this cool multi protocol approach,” he explains, getting into some of the minutiae of modulation and transmission techniques.

He says: “So you can use OQPSK for low-power point-to-point connectivity, and FSK mode so everything is backwards compatible – because most existing metering networks are FSK, and you can’t just rip and replace; you’ve got to keep the network running while you upgrade. And then Wi-SUN has a very high OFDM data-rate mode, as well, up to three megabits per second – and the utilities want their meters to be more than just billing devices.

“They want them for edge intelligence – so they can monitor what’s happening on the grid. So instead of pushing data up [to the cloud] once an hour for billing and usage purposes, they want to push more of it up, in much finer granularity. Which means you need a faster pipe, and LoRaWAN does not provide that. And our strategy with Wi-SUN is to expand beyond, to target broader smart city networks.”

What about the top-down encroachment on the traditional low-power IoT space from private cellular networks, offering LTE and 5G systems in newly liberated ‘vertical’ spectrum, and in more niche bands besides? Because that demand from utilities for bigger pipes, and more control and intelligence over wide-area systems, sounds like a conversation-starter for the cellular brigade. And, finally, as well, does Silicon Labs have plans for cellular?

Sabolcik responds: “So, no, not currently. We have some partnerships on that side – with various module makers to include cellular, mostly for backhaul, in hybrid IoT tracking solutions. But we don’t have a cellular offering of our own. That said, we are continuing to monitor it, and our goal is to be a one-stop wireless provider. On the other question, I don’t see it as an either/or, Wi-SUN or cellular. They will both have a place, and will often go hand-in-hand.

“I mean, cellular has always been there. One of the challenges with it, very acute now, is the longevity of it – whether the same networks will be viable in 10, 15, 20 years. The sunsetting of 2G and 3G networks has caused a lot of heartburn, for example. That has been a pain point. But again, some applications will tend towards cellular, even if just for backhaul, and Wi-SUN will be a major contender.”

A contender, with Matter and Sidewalk, the story goes, for this new IoT mega-cycle.

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