After his presentation, I sat down with Bob Heile, who was chairing one of the IEEE meetings colocated at the recent ConnetivityWeek. I first saw Heile’s name in an article about several wireless protocols, including ZigBee, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and UWB. After following that space for a while, I was covering something else when UWB was dropped from further discussion. I managed to catch Heile during a break in his IEEE meeting.
(Remember John McDonald’s comment about colocating relevant groups to encourage discussions for standards?)
Information about the ZigBee Alliance is here:
The ZigBee Alliance is an association of companies working together to enable reliable, cost-effective, low-power, wirelessly networked, monitoring and control products based on an open global standard.
The goal of the ZigBee Alliance is to provide the consumer with ultimate flexibility, mobility, and ease of use by building wireless intelligence and capabilities into everyday devices. ZigBee technology will be embedded in a wide range of products and applications across consumer, commercial, industrial and government markets worldwide. For the first time, companies will have a standards-based wireless platform optimized for the unique needs of remote monitoring and control applications, including simplicity, reliability, low-cost and low-power.
In addition, ZigBee is being considered as a communications protocol for home and field area networking for smart grid. Others include Wi-Fi, 6LowPAN, Z-Wave and HomePlug.
The following is an edited summary of my interview with Heile.
Question: In your earlier presentation, you did not mention data centers as a potential application area.
Answer: You need to understand that ZigBee is trying to provide a communications protocol/platform to support ubiquitous connections among many objects anywhere. That would generate a lot of information and data. We are concerned with insuring that the needed data is collected and delivered not with how those data or information is managed.
Q: Several communications protocols are being discussed for smart grid. I stopped by the Itron booth (smart meter company, link to bob-heilie-by-zen-kishimoto-1.doc), and found out that Itron and other leading smart meter vendors have embedded ZigBee in their communications. Considering the large number of meter deployments and the fact that most utilities consider a smart meter a gateway [according to Greentech Media, 56% of utilities think that], ZigBee appears to be becoming the communications protocol of choice for smart grid. Is the competition over?
A: As you pointed out, ZigBee has been embedded or will be embedded into 40M-plus smart meters. We are about to cross the chasm [as in Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm model]. It is, however, important to work with core wired and wireless communications protocols, such as Ethernet, Wi-Fi, and WiMax (802.11.6). These protocols will never go away, and it is very important for ZigBee to work with those protocols to establish ubiquitous connectivity to implement the "Internet of things.”
Q: So devices in the future will have a chip to support multiple communications protocols?
A: It has been already done though not always in a single chip just yet. Think of a Wi-Fi access point. It supports 802.11 a, b, g, and n, which are very different radios but the result seems seamless.
Q: You are currently implementing an IP stack. That means that meters with a ZigBee chip now need to communicate with a collection/aggregation node that speaks ZigBee on a pole nearby, for example. If so, who are those vendors?
A: Not really, it is just a different way of providing the same networking functionality being installed today in the HAN but based on IETF RFCs
Q: Once the IP stack is implemented, the meters should be able to communicate with almost anything, as most objects speak IP?
A: They can do that today. An IETF oriented solution is a familiar architecture and is preferred by some but as with anything it is not black and white. Some things get simpler and some more complex.
Q: What happened to UWB (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultra-wideband)? I thought that was a cool technology. Was it killed because two camps with different ideas could not merge them?
A: From the beginning, UWB had a problem in commercialization as it had a problem from the global regulatory point of view. [Note: Allowed spectrum range was one of them.] A protocol like 802.11n can support up to 200 Mbps and has no regulatory issue, as it uses the ISM band [free spectrum]. Given the deadlock in 802.15.3a delaying getting anything to market, the global regulatory environment, and the resultant availability of 11n, UWB did not have a chance as a high data communications radio technology. Even if the groups had agreed it is not likely the outcome would have been any different.
Q: You talked about the horizontal expansion in application areas of ZigBee. However, vertically or technologically, are more feature enhancements to it necessary?
A: For the areas other than ZigBee Smart Energy, I think our basic core stack development is done with the version of the ZigBee specification that was published in 2007. We will make enhancements periodically as we gain more knowledge from the field and occasionally add support for new public profiles. The biggest area of new development is the profiles
Q: What is the battery life of an object with a ZigBee chip?
A: For example, the battery life of a light switch is easily 20 years. In general, it outlasts the owner of those devices.
Q: In your talk, you mentioned that about 30% of ZigBee Alliance members are in Asia. Can you describe what they are doing with ZigBee?
A: Asia is very diverse, but let me mention the five most active countries: Korea, Japan, China, Australia, and India. Korea is everything wireless. Japan uses it for disaster recovery and smart grid. China looks at the "Internet of things” as one of its strategic plans. Australia uses it for tackling drought and energy efficiency via smart grid. Finally, India, using its software development power, provides solutions with ZigBee for others.