Wi-SUN kicks off FAN certification, Itron and Landis+Gyr sing praises

The Wi-SUN Alliance has launched its Field Area Network (FAN) certification program. Starting a little later than planned, the program aims to certify products according to the alliance’s low power mesh networking standard. The target is still utilities, but the alliance is hoping to expand into smart cities too.

Wi-SUN has already proven popular among utilities, using it to connect both smart meters and grid infrastructure. Now, there is a formal certification for compliance, which should improve the device and product ecosystem. According to the group, the first approved products will appear in Q4.

The alliance argues that proprietary systems are no longer sufficiently flexible or cost effective, compared to open standards like Wi-SUN – itself mostly based on IEEE and IETF specifications. In addition, the certification should help create an ecosystem that drives multi-service networks, meaning utilities or cities can use a network for multiple applications, and perhaps most importantly, the standard eliminates vendor lock-in – giving enterprises some assurance that a single vendor isn’t going to become exploitative.

The announcement includes support from Avangrid, a New England energy company serving 3.1mn customers, as well as Hawaiian Electric, whose SVP Planning and Technology, Colton Ching, said “we continue to see Wi-SUN technology as a major enabler for large-scale IoT applications throughout Hawaii with the availability of its FAN Certification Program. The Wi-SUN Alliance and its members have taken a major step forward in bringing multi-vendor, interoperable solutions to fruition.”

Wi-SUN (Wireless Smart Ubiquitous Networks) is based on IEEE 802.15.4g, a sub-GHZ mesh networking protocol that stems from the same family as Zigbee. It’s an open standard, but if you want to achieve the stamp of approval, you’ll have to be a member of the non-profit alliance, which now has over 180 members.

Speaking of these members, Itron and Landis+Gyr are singing the praises of the new program, publishing separate press releases to this end. Both are major vendors of equipment to utilities, and both are major Wi-SUN advocates. Itron bought another major player in the Wi-SUN market, Silver Spring Networks, for $830mn, back in September 2017.

Since then, Itron has announced a 27% increase in revenue, which was fueled by the apparent $1.4bn in backorders that Silver Spring brought with it. Without this contribution, Itron said that the increase would only have been 9%. Itron is currently integrating the Silver Spring assets into its OpenWay Riva portfolio.

Wi-SUN has also garnered interest from network operators, with ESB Telecoms in Ireland (telecoms wholesaler) and UPC in Switzerland (a cable TV operator) launching Wi-SUN in addition to their core cellular offerings.  We anticipate more interest from such companies, who are considering how to cater for IoT devices inside their footprints.

Speaking to Riot ahead of the announcement, Wi-SUN Alliance President and CEO Phil Beecher said that setting up the test environments was quite complex, due to the number of variables at play in a mesh network – never mind the frequency hopping features.

As for expected uptake, Beecher said that the industry was clamoring for the technology, but that predicting the number of devices that would be certified was difficult. He said about ten were waiting for the certification program to open, but that utilities are more frequently requesting Wi-SUN in their RFPs – with some household names also asking for the technology.

The initial wave of certification will be around a 50:50 split between equipment to silicon and software, likely featuring a lot of smart meters and border routers, according to Beecher. More options in the modules should enable lower costs, once volumes pick up. Beecher said it was in everyone’s interest to commoditize the hardware, when dealing with open standards.

He added that the hype behind LoRa was diminishing, and that LTE Cat-NB was still very hyped. Beecher expressed doubts that ubiquitous coverage for LTE would materialize, noting that MNOs are not charities and seeking profits – they aren’t going to erect infrastructure without clear profits.

LPWAN Context:

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 89mn devices connected to date, it seems to have made a pretty compelling argument.

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.

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.