Connectivity is still a challenge for the internet of things. Yes, there are numerous standards out there to choose from, but if we want to ultimately connect hundreds of millions of sensors to the internet, we need connectivity that’s low-power, reliable, and cheap to both deploy and operate. Which, to be sure, is a tall order. But there’s a lot of work being done on this front by companies like Amazon, with its Sidewalk Network, and Wirepas, out of Finland, which is creating a licensing software to build such a network on a variety of standard radios.
Wirepas should be familiar to readers of this newsletter as I profiled the company back in 2019. I also mentioned in last week’s podcast a new standard that uses its technology called DECT-2020. After talking to Wirepas CEO Teppo Hemiä, I’m convinced that we’re seeing something new and significant for the IoT with what these engineers — most of whom are ex-Nokia — have built.
Wirepas makes networking software that lets every node in a Wirepas network act as a router, passing along packets to wherever they need to go. The software can run on limited memory and doesn’t need significant computing power, which would just suck more juice. If the software is deployed on Bluetooth radios, those radios can run for five years on a single battery in highly dense configurations of thousands of nodes in a cubic meter.
There are three things that are important here. First, Wirepas’ networking software is cheap to deploy, especially when compared to cellular networks or even options like LoRa or Sigfox. Anyone can scatter nodes in a physical location without requiring complex networking maps to ensure great coverage. Nor do nodes require a base station to handle the routing, which means building a network requires little planning or expertise.
Second, it’s cheap to operate. Wirepas charges a one-time licensing fee for every radio that uses its software; there’s no ongoing data fee. Customers also can deploy it on a wide variety of radios from different vendors, which enables them to push silicon vendors to compete. And Wirepas has made some of its cloud connection software and reference designs open source, which means that companies can implement and tweak their networks themselves if they wish.
Third, the network itself is a massively distributed mesh network that handles its own routing, what Hemiä refers to as its “beef.” Indeed, much of the cost reductions in computing have come because the industry has learned how to scale. Whereas a systems administrator in 1998 might have managed 10 servers, today one sysadmin can manage tens of thousands of servers thanks to configuration and automation software. Networking hasn’t reached this scale yet, but companies like Qualcomm are investing in necessary aspects of it, such as self-optimizing networks.
These three elements could ultimately lead to a distributed, low-cost IoT network where the nodes only need a human to be involved every five years or so to change the battery (or install a new sensor). Eventually, if we can improve our ability to harvest energy, maybe battery changes will go by the wayside.
So why write about this now? Because this year, Wirepas is gearing up to take on the world of 5G by bringing its software to cellular radios. Last year, it worked with ETSI to essentially take over the relatively unused spectrum in the 1.9 GHz band, which had been given over to cordless telephones. These radios used the DECT (Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunication) standard. In October, Wirepas convinced ETSI to create the DECT-2020 standard so new radios designed for the IoT could use those airwaves.
Now, in addition to Bluetooth and proprietary sub-gigahertz radios (like what Amazon uses for Sidewalk), Wirepas software can run on the same airwaves on which our old cordless phones ran. And in wireless communications, the more airwaves you have, the more data you can send.
The next step in getting the Wirepas software onto 5G networks involves getting the ITU to bring the DECT-2020 standard into its 5G-focused standards effort, called IMT-2020. If that happens, companies will be able to have massively dense, low-power, self-organizing networks with data rates that run up to several megabits per second as opposed to the kilobits per second offered by LoRa or Sigfox.
All of which means Wirepas software could run on cellular LTE-M or NB-IoT radios using the 1.9 GHz spectrum band managed by DECT. That’s the road map required to build a massive Wirepas IoT network. The company is halfway there. Later this year, if DECT-2020 becomes certified by the ITU as an IMT-2020 radio, it will help drive cheaper networks. And those cheaper networks will help make the IoT more ubiquitous.