Go on Wi-SUN
Written by: Philip Mason | Published:

Philip Mason talks to president of the Wi-SUN Alliance Phil Beecher about large-scale, ‘outdoor’ IoT, and the importance of open standards.

The Wi-SUN Alliance is a professional organisation for companies involved in the development of wireless systems in the realm of utilities, smart cities and the Internet of Things.

It promotes certified standards across products with a particular eye on interoperability between solutions. As indicated by a more than 60 per cent increase in membership in the past year, it is increasingly becoming a major player in the field of digital communications.

The alliance’s president is Phil Beecher, someone who is just as committed to advancing the industry as he was when the organisation started – with a slightly narrower remit – six years ago.

Speaking about the evolution of the Wi-SUN Alliance, he says: “The organisation sprang out of initial deployments by utility companies in the US, in relation to smart meter mesh networking infrastructure.

“This included work by organisations such as Pacific Gas and Electric in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Florida Power and Light, who put in approximately four million meters in Miami. These initial deployments were from Silver Spring networks, and at the time consisted of proprietary technology. A number of the other utility product vendors were doing similar things, but they were non-interoperable.”

He continues: “The idea was to provide a very large-scale wireless mesh network, with a high degree of resilience, reliability and security suitable for field or neighbourhood area networking; what used to be called ‘last mile’ connectivity.

“Mesh networking is particularly useful in challenging urban environments where you have a lot of high-rise buildings, as well as reinforced concrete where you might get shadows in the cellular or LPWAN [low-power, wide-area network]. Using a wireless mesh, if you can’t get direct line of sight, you can route through other devices/nodes.”

According to Beecher, the focus of the organisation has changed since it first began, broadening out exponentially in line with the ever-increasing number of IoT or smart city use-cases. These – for anyone somehow unaware at this point – include pollution monitoring, traffic control, refuse collection, street lighting and much more.

A clear path of evolution

While not a standards organisation (Beecher likens it to a version of the Wi-Fi Alliance for large-scale, outdoor IoT), the Wi-SUN Alliance does have a vested interest in the standardisation process as a way of helping to refine and improve the market.

Describing the work of the organisation in this area, Beecher says: “Essentially, we create interoperable profiles using pre-existing standards, defined by the likes of the IEEE, IETF and Telecoms Industry Association. From there we develop testing and certification frameworks, enabling vendors to engineer-in interoperability. Clearly, we want to ensure that the end-users have confidence in the product.”

He continues: “For us, interoperability means that solutions from different manufacturers are able to establish communications with each other as part of the network. In other words, that they can authenticate themselves, are secure and can communicate using the same channels. At this point, we’ve developed an entire profile, all the way up to the transport layer. For us, it’s purely about communications.”

A core part of this for Beecher is the development of interoperable silicon, with manufacturers in the sector now delivering chips that can be made to work together through the use of compatible firmware. With this in mind, there are Wi-SUN-certified wireless solutions for at least “five or six” of the major silicon vendors in its retinue of members.

As well as increasing interoperability, Beecher also believes that standardisation is important to drive the market forward in other, more ‘real world’ ways. These include upping the level of choice to manufacturers and end-users, thereby increasing competition, as well as, paradoxically, making the buying process itself simpler by reducing the dependence on purely technical knowledge.

Elaborating on this, he says: “For the product manufacturers, being able to buy from, for instance, several different interoperable chip vendors means that prices come down, and they’re able to get to market more quickly. We’ve already seen how this works with Wi-Fi, which in the early days was prohibitively expensive with nodes at something like 50 dollars each.”

He continues: “Also, with IoT use-cases continually broadening out, what we’re seeing now are increasing numbers of users becoming incredibly well-versed in the applications themselves – for instance, automated distribution – but who have no communications expertise.

“Again, by having the opportunity for a standards-based, interoperable comms system, those people can increasingly go out and purchase under their own volition. Ultimately, the use of open standards provides a clear a path of evolution.”

Cast-iron business case

The Internet of Things holds a huge amount of promise, with the number of potential benefits apparently growing along with each new use-case. These include everything from increasing efficiencies and helping to provide care for vulnerable people to promoting tourism.

At the same time, the uptake of the technology is proceeding comparatively slowly, with key organisations such as local authorities – quite reasonably – demanding a cast-iron, demonstrable business case before committing to roll-out.

Going on what he has seen so far, how does Beecher believe this will change? What strategies and models will need to be in place for organisations to fully commit to the Internet of Things and smart cities?

“We are certainly seeing progress,” he says. “For instance, with an increasing number of local authorities and other organisations now deploying street-lighting canopies using wireless mesh networking. That’s clearly of particular interest to us, because of our origins in the utilities vertical with smart meters.

“In regard to the business case, it’s a matter of people understanding what’s feasible and beneficial ahead of time. If you look at somewhere like Miami, where the utility company has now rolled out 500,000 street lights on the same network as the smart meters, they had to be absolutely sure that the extra work placed on it wouldn’t degrade network performance. As it turned out, the meter data read time actually halved because of the extra radios which were positioned in the street furniture.

“Again, it’s all a matter of understanding what you can do. The utility industry is fairly mature in its use of IoT technology, for instance because of its SCADA history, and there’s already something like 85 million Wi-SUN-compatible nodes being used in the sector. A lot of what we’re doing is just building on technology which is already proven.”

With this in mind, the key for Beecher is education, particularly when it comes to entities such as local authorities who continue to be concerned about skilling their employees, security, data protection and, of course, funding.

He illustrates this with the example of the City of Copenhagen, which recently rolled out a network of motion sensors that raises the activity of street lighting when a cyclist is nearby.

“Looking at Copenhagen in particular,” he says, “they worked out that the deployment would ultimately pay for itself because of the savings baked into the use of the technology. At the same time, because the city chose a multi-service network supporting multiple applications, they can build any future projects on infrastructure which is already there.”

The deployment of smart city solutions is still very much a novelty rather than the norm for a lot of the organisations for which it could potentially provide huge benefits. Luckily, the Wi-SUN Alliance – and industry figures such as Beecher – are working to refine and promote this game-changing technology.

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