Interview: Phil Beecher, president and CEO of the Wi-SUN Alliance, says the mesh network technology can play a significant role in smart places
Most local authorities are still taking baby steps in the deployment of internet of things (IoT) sensors and exploring the options for the supporting network technology.
Long range wide area networks (LoRaWAN) have made inroads, narrow band IoT is in some applications, 4G has been used and the nationwide roll out of 5G is stirring up ideas for its application. Another option with a gradually rising profile is to harness wireless mesh networks based on Wi-SUN specifications.
Phil Beecher, president and CEO of the industry association Wi-SUN Alliance, says it has developed a firm foothold in the UK public sector with the potential to go further.
It provides the foundation for the early IoT deployments by the City of London Corporation, where it has been used to support smart streetlighting and is now being tested with sensors for air quality, traffic and the presence of lifebelts on the riverside.
Beecher says that authorities, including Glasgow City Council and Surrey County Council, have adopted the networks, and yet more are either planning deployments or actively investigating its potential. This follows Wi-SUN’s initial emergence in the utilities industry.
“It’s new territory for most cities and local authorities,” he says. “But there are fundamental drivers in the form of cost reductions and efficiencies.”
He says that, as shown by the City of London, the immediate potential is often in dynamic street lighting installed along with LED lights. The streetlights themselves tend to require less maintenance and are more energy efficient, and can be matched with sensors to provide dynamic lighting determined by the movement of pedestrians or cyclists at night.
“A local authority can justify it just by being able to control lighting levels and doing remote monitoring,” he said. “Even though LEDs are much more reliable they can sometimes fail, and if you have a remote indication of when it fails you can send someone out to replace it.”
He adds: “People start with streetlighting because you can justify the deployment purely on the business case for that.
“Then there is a little bit of logistics to deal with inside local authorities because they tend to be siloed and the teams don’t always talk to each other. But the sort of applications that people are looking at are for monitoring bins, pedestrian and cycling activity, traffic flows, temperature and environmental monitoring such as road temperatures.”
Standards for systems
The main purpose of the alliance is to promote certified standards that co-ordinate various wireless systems and develop testing programmes for suppliers to verify that their equipment complies with the IEEE 802.15 4g wireless standard specification for smart networks.
Inevitably given his role as an advocate, Beecher is quick to explain its advantages. It begins with being a multi-service network, in which the initial installation of sensors provides the communications infrastructure for other types to be introduced.
He claims the networks can transfer data more quickly than LoRaWANs, providing the capacity for functions such as dynamic streetlight controls and tracking management. They also provide high levels of security, with a robust method for ensuring that only the correct devices are on a network.
“It’s not like that approach of using a password where someone has to go in and change it. We use a technique with security certificates that are like a biometric embedded in the devices that give them entry to the system.
“We use open standards with lots of scrutiny from the industry and heavily used protocols. The clever thing we have done is take some of that enterprise type IT communications and moved it into IoT and machine oriented communications technology.”
If someone physically tampers with a device to change codes inside it will not work on the network any more as it takes out the security certificate.
Wireless mesh advantage
Another factor, crucial to deployment in dense cities with narrow streets and high buildings, is the peer to peer structure of the wireless mesh network.
“The network forms itself when it is installed. The installation engineers don’t have to do anything clever in monitoring signal strengths, they just put the devices where they think they should be and they all connect up.
“Because of the certificates in devices you know where they are and what their connections paths are. Say someone puts a crane for some building or maintenance in the way, the network will just rearrange itself to bypass the obstacles. And if you want to put another 200 streetlights into the network you just install them and they add themselves in.”
Beecher claims a further advantage in that authorities have the flexibility of going to different device vendors – if their products are certified by the alliance – which provides flexibility and can help in obtaining value for money.
This reflects the organisation’s growing membership, which says is now at over 300 companies, and number of certified products, at around 50 from 18 manufacturers.
“People are continuing to join and implement so we are growing the ecosystem of members,” he says. “It means you can have a leading edge company with a really good idea for a particular type of sensor does not have to develop all the communications technology itself, but can work with a partner to integrate it into a whole system.”
He says the alliance is working on certification for products that support faster data transfer rates and improve the energy consumption of battery operated devices. This is initially targeted at the utilities industry, but can progress into supporting the more efficient use of renewable energy and applications for smart places.
Another workstream is focused on making a sufficient slice of the radio spectrum available for IoT applications, involving a dialogue with Ofcom and the European Association of Communications Agencies. Particular classes of Wi-SUN device use parts of the spectrum that are unlicensed but for which there are rules of access to ensure fair use.
“There is a need for the heterogenous communications capabilities where you have wireless mesh servicing the difficult to reach nodes and providing connectivity for a whole range of devices,” he says. “It can work in parallel with the cellular network that seems to be driving towards multimedia data streaming for personal use.”
He adds that the common access rules, that apply throughout the countries under the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT), will help to make projects developed in one city transferable to another.
Beecher adds that it focuses on using open standards from established bodies such as the European Telecommunications Standard Institute (ETSI) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Standards Assocation (IEEE-SA).
“The organisation and our member companies work within the standards organisations to ensure the standards are available to do the sort of things we want to do,” he says.
Overall, Beecher acknowledges that the association has limited contact with local authorities, and that the UK has not been as quick to adopt Wi-SUN as some other countries; but says he sees signs of growing take-up, with the continuing need for efficiencies having an effect.
“I suspect the cost savings are being imposed on the authorities will make quite a difference,” he says. “But there is a definite need for some education here.”
Image from Wi-SUN Alliance