The Connectivity Standards Alliance (CSA) has released a new version of the Zigbee standard called Zigbee PRO 2023 with a stated focus on security. But looking deeper at the proposed changes to the low-power wireless mesh, I see an effort to keep Zigbee relevant by giving it a longer range, beefier security, and a roundabout way to allow Zigbee devices to connect with phones for onboarding and control.
The longer range is the most significant update. It brings the Zigbee protocol beyond the 2.4 GHz spectrum band and into the 900 MHz band in the U.S. and the 800 MHz band in Europe. This is an area where there are dozens of other wireless standards also trying to take advantage of the sub-gigahertz band’s awesome propagation features, such as the ability to pass through walls more easily and go farther than Zigbee has before.
This is huge. Already Wi-Fi is pushing into the same spectrum with Wi-Fi HaLow, its focused standard for delivering connectivity to IoT devices. LoRaWAN and proprietary LoRa also use that frequency band for long-range, low-power connectivity. Also in that spectrum band are technologies such as Wi-SUN, Wirepas, and Mioty. Even fellow low-power mesh rival Z-Wave is using the 900 MHz band for its own long-range Z-Wave technology.
Zigbee will add to the many options, although unlike Wi-Fi HaLow and LoRaWAN, it will create a mesh network. But there are plenty of mesh options in that band as well. Do we really need another? This is especially relevant because to upgrade to the new spectrum band, Zigbee device makers will need new radios, necessitating a new device.
Genie Peshkova, president at DSR Corp. and the Zigbee marketing chair at the CSA, told me we’ll get more details associated with range, etc. as part of another update in the second half of this year. My obsession with bringing Zigbee to a new spectrum band aside, the main focus of the PRO 2023 launch was security.
There are several features that will boost security, such as the ability to use dynamic keys instead of static keys to authenticate devices onto the network. Another security feature is the ability for a Zigbee hub to interrogate devices when they want to join the network and to figure out if they are allowed on the network based on their hub’s requirements.
According to Peshkova, many of these security features were borrowed from the Smart Energy Zigbee profile, where security was more of a necessary feature. This does get to one of the challenges I have with Zigbee devices more broadly. The Zigbee PRO 2023 releases are voluntary for firms to adopt, which means that not all devices will get an update and not all Zigbee devices will have all of these features.
So if some of the security features are important to a user, they will need to ensure that both the hub and the end devices have adopted Zigbee PRO 2023 and the specific features that they want. Chris LaPré, head of technology at the CSA, told me that some members with Zigbee devices have already provided these security features as part of a proprietary implementation and are just waiting to open it up now that it’s part of the Zigbee PRO 2023 standard. Others may never adopt them at all.
The PRO 2023 release also includes Zigbee Direct, an update that was originally released in January. Zigbee Direct is a way to use Bluetooth Low Energy as a proxy for connecting and communicating with Zigbee devices. Devices using Zigbee Direct need to have a Bluetooth and Zigbee radio, but if they do, it means someone could use a phone (which has BLE but not Zigbee) to provision Zigbee devices and operate them directly from the phone or by using a hub.
I wouldn’t recommend using a phone as the primary interface for Zigbee devices because if the phone isn’t within range of the Zigbee radios the devices won’t work. That said, Zigbee Direct is designed to make getting a bunch of devices onto a network easier, and could even help when it comes to moving devices from one hub to another without all of the one-to-one pairing.
So there you have it. Despite Matter adopting Thread as the low-power mesh networking technology for the smart home, the CSA is still trying to keep Zigbee relevant, especially in enterprise and industrial areas where it has found a home in lighting and building management.