Taking ZigBee Where the Money Is

By Adam Stone

April 15, 2005

While competitors may focus on consumer home controls, Dust Networks plans to use the 802.15.4 wireless technology in commercial settings, which some say is the lucrative place to go.

We can do this the hard way, or we can do this the easy way.

When it comes to introducing 802.15.4 into the marketplace, wireless mesh provider Dust Networks is taking what company executives say will prove to be the easy way.

While others are pushing for consumer adoption of the wireless standard, Dust is targeting the commercial and industrial sectors, where its executives say adoption is likely to come first.

Commercial users have the most to gain from 802.15.4 right now, says Dust's Vice President of Marketing, Rob Conant. In offices and warehouses, engineers are rigging sensors to track motion, temperature, lighting, pressure and other factors, but these are costly deployments. "People are putting these sensor networks out there in the world, but it takes a lot of labor," Conant says. "You have a $10 sensor, and it costs you $400 to install it in a building."

To address the problem, Dust this spring added 802.15.4-compliant radio hardware to its SmartMesh wireless sensor networking product line, in a further effort to target large-scale commercial users worldwide.

Dust is a member of the ZigBee Alliance and is helping to develop standards there. While most other ZigBee members are focusing on consumer applications, though, Dust is going in a different direction.

Analysts say it may be the right move.

Glen Allmendinger, President of Harbor Research, sees a good reason for going after the commercial market for wireless mesh. "Outside of things like entertainment, there are really no killer apps in the home that would drive this," he says. "Given the fickle nature of the consumer in the home context, and certainly given the tattered history of home automation initiatives, one would have to say that it will definitely break in commercial and industrial first."

Others note that the industrial sector has a more pressing financial incentive to seek out mesh solutions.

Cost savings go well beyond the issue of deployment, notes Julie Ask, a senior analyst with Jupiter Research. "If they invest money in the network, sensors, back-end and so forth, they need fewer people to read meters, fewer customer service calls due to billing errors," she says. "So it reduces the total cost of ownership."

Are there other avenues for linking these industrial sensors? Certainly -- but none are as cost-effective as 802.15.4 solutions, Conant says. In most cases, for instance, 802.11 standards would do the trick, but that would be more than the job requires. These sensors demand little bandwidth and low power, making Wi-Fi a case of overkill.

Still, there will be challenges for those looking to bring 802.15.4 mesh into the commercial sector. For one thing, it can take literally thousands of sensors to cover all the needs of a single building. Reliability, therefore, has got to be all but absolute. Who wants to have to send out a truck every time one of those thousands of sensors misfires?

Other economic interests also weigh heavily. Take, for instance, Dust's move to add 802.15.4 to its SmartMesh product. The company initially launched SmartMesh using a proprietary 900MHz band radio from ChipCom in Norway. Why the switch to the 802.15.4 standard? Because, while the 900 MHz band is license-free in North America, the 2.4 GHz band in 802.15.4 is license-free worldwide.

Saving money is the core issue here. Conant notes that, in a typical building environment these days, 30 to 50 percent of the total cost of building control lies in the labor associated with installing sensors. "It's a huge expense, and so far there has been very little technology brought to bear on that problem," he says.

In the final analysis, he suggests, common sense dictates that industrial uses will far outstrip consumer needs.

In the consumer market, "you want to be able to go to Home Depot and buy a light switch from one manufacturer and a remote control from another manufacturer, and have them work together," Conant says. "But in the enterprise market, we are typically talking about outsourcing whole services or systems, and when that happens, a building owner is going to hire one company to install that entire system."


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