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10 April 2015

Wireless IoT Forum latest to promise IoT unification

As the IoT becomes ever more diffuse and politically charged, it might seem that the last thing anyone needs to address fragmentation is another industry alliance. However, the Wireless IoT Forum says its mission is just that – to counter fragmentation by creating a common platform that will bring scale and unity to the sector, because it will be heavily driven by operator requirements.

The new Forum is not as broad-ranging as its name suggests. It will focus on the low power wide area (LPWA) segment of the IoT, avoiding the battles over short range wireless connections in the home (though it will have to take efforts like Thread and Bluetooth Low Energy into account). It will cover licensed and license-exempt spectrum solutions, and a wide range of use cases from smart city to consumer branded services.

However, its chosen area is hardly free from politics and competing technologies, with Sigfox, Plextek, the LoRa Alliance, the Weightless SIG and others all battling to establish themselves as alternatives to cellular solutions, mainly harnessing the unlicensed ISM spectrum bands.

The new group aims to address this potential chaos by adopting the blueprint created by another alliance, the Small Cell Forum (founded as the Femto Forum in 2007 to bring harmony to another emerging area of wireless technology). Several founding executives are veterans of that older Forum, including chairman Will Franks, co-founder of small cell pioneer Ubiquisys (now owned by Cisco).

The new group’s CEO will be William Webb, a co-founder of Neul, which created the technology underpinning Weightless and was acquired last year by Huawei. Webb has also held positions at UK regulator Ofcom and is currently chair of the UK IET (Institution of Engineering and Technology).

According to Franks, there are many lessons from the early Femto Forum days, which can be applied to the LPWA wireless space to avoid it being fractured by technology battles. The new group will not write new standards but will seek to influence those of others by spearheading work on operator requirements, feeding the resulting specifications into standards bodies.

As in small cells, service providers feel reluctant to move ahead with LPWA deployments – especially relevant in smart city applications like smart meters and smart lighting – until they have a broad ecosystem and a choice of suppliers to drive cost efficiency and innovation. That means interoperability, which was the key objective of the Femto Forum (with its Iuh specification and other initiatives).

As with that effort, the new Forum will seek to encourage vendors to subscribe to common interoperability platforms by getting major operators on-side to drive the work and to insist that their suppliers support it. Several major providers, as yet unnamed, are said to have signed up, as they see the opportunity to shape an emerging market around their real world use cases and business plans.

Franks accepts that this is a harder task than the budding small cell industry faced. “This is multidimensional, the fragmentation is greater, some of the technologies have been there for a long time,” he said. Franks himself was at the helm last year when Plextek spun out its Senaptic business, which is commercializing Ultra Narrow Band (UNB) – a venerable technology, in IoT terms.

That unit, now merged with sister company Telensa, was arguing for a smart city solution that bypassed mobile operators. However, the new Forum, while relevant to any IoT provider, is likely to be heavily influenced by the major mobile operators, which are looking for a route into the smart city for LTE.

Their hopes rest heavily on the work on a low power, low data rate implementation, LTE-MTC, but Franks insists the new Forum will be technology neutral, focusing on use cases and interoperability – which could come on various layers. Early interest has come from non-mobile operators too, and it will be important to establish a “horizontal view” which is relevant to all, regardless of their network and spectrum.

“If you can get a strong ecosystem representing all the layers, and multiple suppliers, then you can think about real and useful applications,” Franks said. “Older technologies haven’t moved as far as they could have done, precisely because of fragmentation.”

He hopes the companies, such as Sigfox, which are pushing proprietary implementations, will eventually join the Forum and look towards interworking with others, if they see operator pressure for that.

Franks said the inaugural meeting of the Forum gave him hope that this might not be “such an uphill struggle” after all. The time is right, he believes – among providers there is “frustration laced with a lot of consensus” on what needs to be done to create a harmonized ecosystem.

The first steps, apart from publicizing the Forum and attracting members, will be to map out business models, in order to establish which are most attractive to providers; and start to build partnerships with other technology and standards groups, as well as reaching out to regulators. These activities will feed into an overall framework, to be shared later in the year, while founding members will be announced at the end of April.

“The wireless Internet of Things is bringing connectivity and control to an order of magnitude more devices, however there is a very real risk of fragmented standards and technologies holding back the development of the market,” said Webb in a statement. “There has also been a tremendous amount of work done in the IoT world across a wide range of technologies. As in the cellular world, the success of this will lie in the promotion of open standards.”