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11 February 2019

Zigbee gets a boost in the smart home as Amazon joins board

Amazon has joined the board of the Zigbee Alliance, which is a good sign for the low power mesh protocol that has been plodding along in the smart home space for the past decade. Unfortunately for both Zigbee and its rival Z-Wave, the recent explosion that was powered by Amazon’s Echo range and Google’s Home line-up largely bypassed the two mesh protocols. So Amazon signing up to the Alliance suggests that it might make Zigbee more prevalent in its smart home portfolio.

This would somewhat buck an emerging trend, where lower power versions of WiFi and the new Bluetooth Mesh capabilities would have pushed the older protocols out of the market. Only one of Amazon’s Echo range had Zigbee functions, the Echo Plus, with the rest relying solely on WiFi and Bluetooth. Ring, a recent Amazon acquisition, uses Z-Wave for its cameras and alarms.

Of course, a home with a Z-Wave or Zigbee hub that could be paired with an Echo or Home would provide the integration with the Amazon or Google ecosystem, without needing to have the protocol on the voice assistant devices themselves. To that end, there would have been space for Zigbee and Z-Wave here, but now it seems that Zigbee might begin cropping up in future Echo designs.

As Zigbee can run on Bluetooth radios, there’s a good chance that the bill of materials cost of such moves would be negligible, and if a USB dongle is all that’s needed to bring Zigbee or Z-Wave into the picture, that’s a small cost to pay from a development perspective.

What’s more, Apple recently joined the Thread Group, which might mean that Thread begins popping up in the HomeKit platform. But Apple’s progress has been slow, to say the least, so don’t get your hopes up for a rapid turnaround. As Thread has a somewhat symbiotic relationship with Zigbee, which some more barbed critics would probably call parasitic, then we might see Amazon and Apple move closer together.

Thread has origins with Nest, now part of Google, so perhaps collaboration between the three of them is all but inevitable – behind the scenes, at least. You will note that there’s not such a web of connections on the Z-Wave side of things, but the Z-Wave detractors have yet to be proven right that the protocol was not long for this world, and we expect it to continue to enjoy healthy demand – especially on the professional installer side of things.  Z-Wave’s new home, after Silicon Labs bought up the assets from Sigma Designs, could see the protocol shift focus or direction.

The seat on the Zigbee Alliance’s board means that Amazon gets to have a say in the development process of the protocol. It provides influence over the direction of the strategy, which Amazon can use to align it more closely with its own plans. At this stage, Zigbee is pretty established, so we don’t envision the protocol suddenly changing rapidly.

But WiFi is evolving, and the new 802.11ah (HaLow) protocol is being pushed as a low-power option for developers. Running in sub-GHz bands, instead of the 2.4 GHz used by Zigbee, Bluetooth, and WiFi, the HaLow approach is something of a blend between low power personal area networks (PAN) and the much longer-range LPWAN.

To this end, it has had a somewhat murky development, and is often criticized for not being focused enough on one specific application. At a claimed range of 1km, it has much greater reach than all of its WiFi cousins (bar 802.11af, the TV white space variant, called White-Fi), but this brings it into the realm of the Unlicensed-LPWAN types like LoRa, which can offer significantly longer ranges than 1km.

In addition, making a globally compatible chip for HaLow is tricky, as there is so much variance between regional sub-GHz ISM band allocations. On top of this, it would almost certainly require that two WiFi chips are used in a device, once for the 802.11n or 802.11ac that would power conventional WiFi usage, and then one for HaLow, due to the difference in radio frequencies.

Another option for the WiFi community would be found in the new 802.11ax specification, which is being called WiFi 6. The main benefit of 802.11ax is that it would use the same 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz bands as the high bandwidth operations. The variant has a 20 MHz channel mode that has been designed for IoT devices, using a 2 MHz chunk of that channel to provide a data rate as low as 375Kbps, and uses a technique called Dual sub-Carrier Modulation (DCM) to ensure that there is enough redundancy in the message so that it only needs to be sent once. The variant also has the same long-sleep support as HaLow, which should allow for devices to stay in sleep-mode for longer, and therefore use less battery life while remaining on the network.

The new 802.11ax is being rolled out in 2019, and while the headline focus is on its very high throughput and spectral efficiency, it does feature some IoT-friendly features. As more products emerge, we will keep track of IoT adoption, but thanks to the huge economies of scale in the WiFi and Bluetooth silicon market, there is a strong chance that the two will begin to put much more pressure on the likes of Z-Wave, Zigbee, and Thread, going forward.