Recently Google’s Nest, along with Samsung, launched Thread, a new networking standard for smart homes and the Internet of things. Similar to Wi-Fi, it remains to be seen if Thread will become as successful. The potential exists thanks to Thread’s inherent qualities, the big names behind it, and the momentum pushing it forward.
Like Wi-Fi, the new Thread standard combines existing standards: the IEEE 802.15.4 standard for low-power wireless data-communication, the well-known IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) IPv6 standard, and several smaller building blocks for routing and meshing.
IEEE 802.15.4 is often used in for industrial applications and is the relatively unknown little brother of IEEE802.11, which is well known as Wi-Fi. About a decade ago, the IEEE 802.15.4 working group was spun out ofIEEE 802.11 with its main objective to build a worldwide, low-power radio networking standard for sentrollers, which are sensors, actuators or controllers, such as thermostats, light switches, and security sensors.
Different Standards and Situations
IEEE 802.11’s primary goal is how to successfully achieve higher and higher data rates for video, audio, gaming, and other high bandwidth-demanding applications. IEEE 802.11 (Wi-Fi) is for content sharing and distribution. However, supporting these high data rates also requires much power and drains batteries, and therefore the goal for IEEE 802.15.4 became not high data rate, but extended battery life via low-power requirements.
Most people are used to the daily chore of recharging the batteries of computer laptops, tablets, and smartphones but would not want to do so for the predicted hundred or so wireless sentrollers that will be in our future smart homes. Instead, it is essential that these devices run on batteries for decades or not even require batteries at all. IEEE 802.15.4-based devices and sentrollers can require 1/10,000th or less power needed to operate Wi-Fi-based, high-bandwidth applications.
Preferred for Low Power
Because of the low power requirement, IEEE 802.15.4 has become THE low-power standard for wireless networking, essentially low-power Wi-Fi for sentroller devices that do not need to transmit much data. Like Wi-Fi, IEEE 802.15.4 uses the worldwide available 2.4GHz band. IEEE 802.15.4 uses 16 smaller channels (compared to WiFi using 3 channels), which provides IEEE 802.15.4 with the agility to avoid Wi-Fi channels. This collision avoidance has been implemented in the RF4CE standard, a standard that has been successfully used for several years in many newer modern TV’s and set-top boxes, replacing infrared remote controls.
Accepted and used worldwide, the IEEE 802.15.4 standard is the base of ZigBee as well as several other industrial standards like Wireless Hart and ISA-100. Therefore, the fact that Thread is endorsing the standard technology further strengthens the position of 802.15.4 industry-wide, compared to proprietary protocols such as Z-Wave.
The other major building block that Thread is using is IPv6. The IETF developed IPv6 to succeed IPv4, as IPv4 is running out of addresses, in particular in light of the arrival of the smart home and IoT. The Internet Protocol version 6 has increased the number of total possible web addresses to unspeakable large numbers. With a device penetration expected to be in the tens or hundreds of billions by 2020, it is essential that more device addresses are made available.
Threads and Bees
Therefore, combining IEEE 802.15.4 with IPv6 is a logical step. As you would expect, Thread is not the first to recognize this issue and propose this course of action, as the ZigBee Alliance had already made a similar step a few years ago. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, the ZigBee IPv6 plans never really got the needed traction in the market. However, it is interesting to note that of the seven members of the Thread Group, five are also members of the ZigBee Alliance. The support of Google’s Nest may help swing the balance, or maybe the timing will be better now, or maybe the recognition of the emerging juggernaut that is the Internet of things, will finally make people a difference.
The ZigBee Alliance has expressed its willingness to work with Thread, since the ZigBee Allianceis the home organization for several other important network layers as well, such as PRO, RF4CEand Green Power. But for Thread there are also alternative options available. In many ways, by proposing new technology as well as educational and certification activities, Thread can be viewed as a “low-power Wi-Fi” organization, fitting neatly within the structure of the “high power” Wi-Fi Alliance. It is perhaps too early to tell, but with the arrival of the smart home and the IoT, interesting times lie ahead.