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22 June 2018

Wi-SUN continues quiet LPWAN incursion, racks up operator wins

Wi-SUN is enjoying a good few years, and now seems to have turned a new corner – enticing national wireless network operators to set up Wireless Smart Utility Network (Wi-SUN) offerings alongside their core licensed cellular offerings. UPC Switzerland is the second to do so, following ESB Telecoms in Ireland last August.

Wi-SUN isn’t the first option most people think off when they hear the term ‘LPWAN,’ but it certainly meets the criteria. While capable of multi-mile transmissions, the mesh protocol can make multiple hops between endpoints to reach its intended destination. It also tends to have much lower latencies than other unlicensed LPWAN protocols, and usually higher bandwidth – and it’s IPv6 compliant.

Now, LoRa and Sigfox seem to have it beat when it comes to power usage, but Wi-SUN’s utility focus makes this something of a moot point. For smart electricity meters and streetlights, a power supply is not a problem – the module can draw from the electricity in the device. With 89m devices connected to date, it seems to have made a pretty compelling argument.

Silver Spring Networks, bought by Itron for $830m last year, was one of the most prominent Wi-SUN advocates, using the technology to power its Starfish networking offering – responsible for over 26.7m of the total Wi-SUN device count. Back in August, a month before the purchase, Silver Spring announced that ESB Telecoms would be partnering with it to deploy a national Wi-SUN network in Ireland.

ESB Telecoms is a subsidiary of the Electric Supply Board (ESB), the state-owned electricity company that is now not as much of a monopoly as it once was. The telecoms wing runs a wholesale telecommunications network in the country, providing broadband and telephony. Now, ESB Telecoms will also be offering Wi-SUN – providing Irish buyers with the option of 802.15.4g.

In the announcement, the pair said that the Starfish PaaS would be augmenting the ESB telecom infrastructure, allowing them to provide SLAs. The initial targets are, unsurprisingly, municipal, commercial, and industrial customers.

Many Irish cities, towns and businesses are interested in how the IoT can help create new innovative, efficient and sustainable services,” said Rory McGowan, Managing Director, ESB Telcoms. “By working with Silver Spring Networks, we believe that we’ll be able to accelerate IoT development nationally, with the high standard of reliability and service that our customers have come to expect from us. We look forward to helping Ireland become a leader through the deployment of one of the world’s first standards-based national IoT rollouts.”

Turning now to Switzerland, the Wi-SUN ecosystem has won over UPC, a cable TV and broadband provider that is part of the Liberty Global conglomerate. For UPC, this is a pretty big expansion – launching it into the world of wireless services, something that it has not done before.

As a cable TV operator, it already has the backhaul communications network infrastructure to transport the Wi-SUN traffic once it reaches an internet-connected gateway. However, UPC is not doing this alone. It is partnering with Elektron, a Swiss company that specializes in energy efficient designs for five sectors – transport, lighting, payment systems, smart cities, and power.

There’s not actually all that much detail on the deal out there, but Elektron certainly has Wi-SUN expertise – and now will be able to entice Swiss customers to opt for a nationally available Wi-SUN network. For UPC, Wi-SUN is a new revenue opportunity that doesn’t require licensing spectrum, or setting up the associated (and expensive) cellular macrocell network. The impact of additional traffic on its network should also be easy to manage, as so much of it will simply hop between the endpoints and not have to travel through its core infrastructure.

However, there are still more national LoRa adopters in Europe than Wi-SUN – not that the likes of Orange or KPN are showing all that much enthusiasm for the unlicensed LPWAN. Wi-SUN has, to date, targeted a pretty specific set of applications, which might make it an easier sell to a network operator (cellular or fixed) to expand into.

In addition, while Wi-SUN might be a fairly straightforward technology to adopt, it does run into issues when it comes to charging for access. A utility, for instance, could build its own network, and avoid having to pay subscription fees to a network provider. Of course, the trade-off here it the cost of building and maintaining the network, which is why the likes of Silver Spring were able to sell that as a service.

The per-unit subscriptions will also have to be at a level acceptable enough to entice an MNO to invest. While being able to offer some sort of SLA should let it target higher value applications, the MNO should already have the LTE footprint needed to provide LTE-based options – LTE-M and NB-IoT.

But there’s a lot of potential for Wi-SUN to gain more traction among network operators – even if it has to bypass conventional MNOs and target broadband wholesalers and cable TV providers. Whether an MNO can be convinced to invest in building out such a network is a tricky balancing act, but the MNO’s local brand power is not to be sniffed at. Seeing Wi-SUN offered alongside the new LTE options would do a lot to boost its visual presence and reputation, but the MNO will likely think it already has enough tools in its wheelhouse to target the sorts of potential customers that might be interested in Wi-SUN.