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2 June 2017

Qualcomm unveils WiFi + Bluetooth smart home mesh-net reference

Qualcomm has announced its Mesh Networking Platform, a stack of technologies that it is pushing as a reference design for OEMs and broadband carriers to use in their smart home devices and services. With WiFi and Bluetooth Mesh, via Qualcomm’s CSRmesh tech, Qualcomm is also tightly integrating voice control – hoping to become a key choice for developers.

While there still isn’t an agreed-upon architecture for a smart home, WiFi remains the sole consideration for the backhaul protocol – the link between high-bandwidth nodes within the home that in turn connect the low-power devices.

With operators increasingly eyeing the home gateway as the ideal piece of CPE for integrating their own smart home ambitions with, the WiFi will act as the backhaul to the wider internet, exiting the home via this gateway, or simply through an Ethernet bridge to a conventional WiFi router.

The other major benefit of WiFi is its ubiquity inside smartphones, which can act as local and remote links between the home’s residents and the devices they want to interact with. While voice is well-placed to become the primary interface, through devices similar to the Amazon Echo or Google Home, but also through lights, switches, or sockets.

These kinds of devices will be able to rely on a wired power supply to power the relatively power-hungry WiFi protocol that would be used to transport that voice data throughout the home – as frequent voice data would tax a battery-powered device.

Sending those voice packets would either require a device to use its radio or internal compute resources – either sending the voice data out to the network and waiting for a response, or processing the voice data itself and taking action, instead of sending streams of data outwards. Either approach doesn’t suit a device designed for long-term battery-based deployments.

The new Qualcomm stack caters for two low-power protocols – ZigBee and Bluetooth. ZigBee is an established 802.15.4 mesh networking protocol, which is popular among smart home devices such as lighting systems. Bluetooth is also ubiquitous in smartphones, and is frequently used to move audio and voice data.

The Bluetooth SIG is behind schedule in publishing the mesh-networking spec for Bluetooth, which will see the protocol invade the space currently occupied by ZigBee, Z-Wave, and the emerging Thread protocol. Thanks to its huge economies of scale, Bluetooth chips are very cheap, and are often found in combo packages with WiFi – which can lead to cheaper BOM costs for developers that would need a low-power protocol in combination with WiFi.

But while Bluetooth Mesh is still just around the corner, Qualcomm’s stack is including a version of Bluetooth that supports mesh-networking, called CSRmesh, which Qualcomm picked up through its acquisition of CSR. Last we heard, CSR was a big contributor to the Bluetooth Mesh project, meaning that the pre-standard Qualcomm version might end up being quite similar to the completed specification.

As for ZigBee, there haven’t been any notable examples of voice applications using the protocol, although we understand that the protocol could serve such a purpose if desired. For the new stack, the lack of a Z-Wave option is disappointing, as ZigBee and Z-Wave together would serve the vast majority of existing smart home devices in the field. While Bluetooth Mesh might eventually take bites out of their market share, in the short-term, the systems that are based on Qualcomm’s stack would benefit from being able to link devices that had already been installed in homes.

Qualcomm wasn’t the only one launching smart home focused WiFi products, with both MediaTek and Cypress announcing new chips. MediaTek’s new chips are aimed at low-power devices, while Cypress’s new WICED (the division it bought from Broadcom) chip combines high-speed WiFi with Bluetooth inside a USB 2.0 hub – saying that the system is ideal for smart home products and network peripherals like printers.

“Qualcomm helped create a new category of mesh networks that are transforming in-home connectivity. With or new Qualcomm Mesh Networking Platform, we are building upon that foundation to accelerate the next generation of mesh systems to further enhance connected services in the home,” said Gopi Sirineni, VP Product Management at Qualcomm Technologies.”

Sirineni added that “new capabilities like voice assistance and IoT radio integration will not only transform consumer experiences at home, but along with carrier-grade feature enhancements, make it easier for our customers to adopt and deploy mesh systems aligned to how people want their networks to perform.”

In terms of the chips, the design is centered around the IPQ40x8/9 systems-on-chip (SoCs), which Qualcomm says are used in nearly every WiFi mesh networking product today. On top of this, Qualcomm is using its WiFi Self-Organizing Network (SON) suite, to manage the dynamic network environments where devices move around and enter sleep states.

The system will be able to use 802.11ac (the latest high-speed WiFi spec), 802.11ad (WiFi that uses the 60GHz band for line-of-sight links), 802.11ax (), or Powerline (it doesn’t specify whether this is HomePlug or G.hn) as backhaul options.

Qualcomm also announced a new 802.11ad chipset (the QCA6335 + QCA6310), which promises up to 1km deployments – a bit beyond the scope of a smart home, perhaps, but pitched at enterprise and carrier-grade access points. Qualcomm envisions tri-band access points, which use the 2.4GHZ and 5GHz bands in addition to the more newly embraced 60GHz, with the 802.11ad portion better suited to backhaul tasks than serving client-devices.