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Weightless: getting open LPWAN standards right before deployment


via Flickr © Fernando Marcelino (CC BY-SA 2.0)

  • Sigfox and LoRa don't have the unlicensed LPWAN market to themselves
  • Weightless was early into the game but has taken a strict open standards approach
  • It claims that in comms, 'open' always wins in the end

While LoRa and Sigfox now seem to be making the running in IoT in the unlicensed LPWAN (low powered wide area network) field, there are other contenders. Cambridge-based Weightless sprang into being in 2011, and took an ‘open standards first’ approach to the then emerging sector.

As we all know standards take time to bang into place and the Weightless SIG (special interest group) has spent the last few years playing tortoise to its competitors’ hares. While the hares have been out working with customers, putting in the first networks and generally making themselves visible, Weightless (as it tells it) has been refining its technology and working to overcome the shortcomings of first generation LPWAN technology.

Now the group hopes this approach might be starting to pay off with the announcement from its lead vendor, Ibiik, that it has launched hardware and SDKs (software development kits) for the “highly anticipated” Weightless-P standard.

Essentially, Weightless says it’s spent time getting things right so as to be able to offer real advantages over both alternative LPWAN technologies and the cellular based technologies, including NB-IoT.

It name-checks adaptive data rates, adaptive transmit power, scheduled uplink/downlink, and an ability to page over-the-air firmware upgrades through multicast. It says these features translate to real world benefits, including higher network capacity, superior QoS, better security and higher network performance.

It also points out that Weightless can operate in both sub-1GHz licence exempt and in licensed, and that the Weightless SIG is a non-profit global standards organisation.

Most of all Weightless adherents believe comms history teaches that, given time, standard technologies always win out over proprietary ones and Weightless’ competitors - while having ‘open’ protocols at the MAC layer - tend to be proprietary down at the chip level.

This matters in comms because both vendors and service providers have traditionally been anxious to avoid being locked in to a particular technology or set of technologies.

“For instance, while LoRa is making the MAC layer open, you still need to get your hands on the necessary proprietary chips,”  says Weightless CEO, William Webb. “They could turn their hardware into an open standard but there’s no sign of that happening yet. And, yes, in the long term someone might be able to retro-engineer and build their own LoRa chip to provide some second sourcing, but I would be staggered if Semtech (which owns the underlying chip technology for LoRaWAN) hadn’t patented things adequately.”

I suggest that the difference might be that IoT network technologies owe more to the IT environment than the telecoms environment and in IT, proprietary technology at chip level is at least tolerated as it’s seen as providing a spur to ongoing innovation by the IP owner - take the position of Intel’s X86 technology in virtualization, for instance. Also, when markets are huge enough to provide adequate scale, you can have competing proprietary players in the same niche, reducing the lock-in factor.

William agrees that this might play a part, but he still thinks that strong open standards will triumph in the end.

“If you’ve got different people buying the two ends of a system, then you need standards between them.”  Ultimately, he says, if there’s going to be a second (unlicensed) IoT ecosystem to match cellular IoT, then logic dictates it will be based on open standards - just as WiFi standards exist in contra-distinction to cellular standards.

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