Orange drops mystery smart home protocol for ULE as DSP slides in

Orange has evolved from telco giant to one of Europe’s most promising champions of the burgeoning smart home scene, with innovations ranging from its AI assistant Djingo in partnership with Deutsche Telekom, to interactive mirrors (which was mysteriously absent at this year’s MWC), right down to the nittier and grittier world of sensors and networks. The French colossus recently made a move in the latter field which many may have missed – rolling in Californian vendor DSP Group to enable future smart home applications via the ultra-low energy (ULE) protocol.

DSP Group makes a somewhat refreshing change from Faultline Online Reporter’s usual Orange smart home coverage, where we usually focus on the frustration about the ongoing delays regarding the full connected home strategy.

Orange plans to roll out products and services based on DSP’s ULE chips this coming spring, including a motion sensor, smart plug, smart light bulb and door/window-opening sensor, with the initial wave reaching some 3 million homes installed with the latest Livebox router, allowing customers to enable the new services free of charge, without the need for additional or new equipment.

The Orange Livebox is a universal home gateway powered by a modest Broadcom BCM63138 chip with just 5000 DMIPS of processing power, running the SoftAtHome platform with dual mode WiFi, but with components bundled onto it for connection to and VDSL lines. The use of the ULE protocol provides several additional benefits including low power consumption, extended indoor coverage and a simple installation procedure.

“Over 5 million customers of Orange and Deutsche Telekom are already equipped with ULE-compatible routers and will be able to connect to a wider range of connected objects specially designed for use in the home,” says Sylvaine Aublanc, Smart Home Marketing Director at Orange.

Interestingly, DSP Group notes that Orange has switched its wireless communications protocol to the DECT-based (Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications) ULE on the basis of additional support for QoS, security and reliability. We are attempting to ascertain which wireless protocol Orange has dropped in favor of ULE, which is most likely Z-Wave but there is also the possibility of the protocol being proprietary.

But in the meantime, the benefits of ULE to operators include interference-free spectrum, one of the longest ranges among short range wireless communications technologies (50 meters indoors, 300 meters outdoors), as well as natural and reliable voice and audio support. Of course, ULE wouldn’t have 2019 appeal without a high relevance to 5G applications, particularly for industrial, healthcare and other markets where there will be large amounts of IoT traffic indoors. Orange joined Deutsche Telekom as a member of the ULE Alliance last month, where the Forum is working on an interworking protocol, called DECT-5G, that would allow DECT and ULE to interface seamlessly with the 3GPP’s 5G NR, and in turn allow DECT-based applications to emerge wherever there was a 5G connection. The full DECT argument can be read here.

Tapping DSP was perhaps a long time coming from Orange, given how subsidiary SoftAtHome, the wireless and video gateway specialist, integrated DSP Group’s ULE chipset back in late 2016, into the SOP8 platform for CPE devices.

DSP has also been active in the voice arena, partnering with STMicro and Sensory on an ultra-low-power MEMS (Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems) microphone package, targeted at IoT apps requiring voice interfaces. Interestingly, neither one of Orange or Deutsche Telekom have ever publicized the chip powering the Djingo smart speaker, which is supposed to belatedly launch this Spring, over a year late on the connected TV agenda. We see the connected home as the media hub and everything connected to it, while the smart home is a much wider ecosystem consisting of sensors and other devices which expand beyond the home, for example remote surveillance.

Almost exactly a year, Orange laid out its smart home strategy to us during an intriguing interview, explaining how the Anticipation in Smart Access unit – part of the Orange Labs arm – was in the data-harvesting stage at the time on a scale not only to rival European operators in smart homes but the US technology heavyweights too. To that end, smart WiFi has been a pivotal cog in the smart home ecosystem, aiming to ensure the home LAN is state of the art, constantly improving both hardware and software network infrastructure to enable new features, as well as adding IoT applications via LWAN integrations. But with the potential dismissal of Z-Wave – is Orange changing tack?