Green up: Triple play needed in wireless home networks, too

By Don Dingee

Embedded Computing Design

May 24, 2017

This month, we take a look at wireless networks for smart energy and examine how ZigBee and Bluetooth can win by teaming with, not displacing, Wi-Fi a...


Surviving competition sometimes takes cooperation. That’s exactly what’s happening in the wireless home networking space, and it’s about to impact our view of smart energy. Technologies like ZigBee and Bluetooth continue to build their momentum, and the market is now becoming less about pure plays and more about interoperability.

Here’s a brief chronology of the stuff that made it into my brain today and triggered all this:

During an E-cast with Freescale last fall, the topic of the Whirlpool smart dryer with ZigBee came up. One of the questions that came to mind was how the guys from Lowe’s would be able to configure that beast into your home network. “Honey, the ZigBee in the dryer is down again, can you reset it?” Ohhhhhhh, I can’t wait to hear those words. Somehow I know they’re not too far away. Maybe my future is as a smart appliance tech, who knows – I can take apart a remote control and almost put it back together. But I digress …

I ran into a good friend, Dan Artusi of Golden Gate Capital, at the Consumer Electronics Show, and we happened to be in front of a ZigBee demo. I asked Dan which technology he thought would win: ZigBee or Wi-Fi? He said it’s a no-brainer – what’s in your house and everyone else’s house right now is the best bet: Wi-Fi. (Disclaimer: His firm works closely with Atheros, but they resemble the next remark.)

While chatting with Redpine Networks CEO Venkat Mattela just before Embedded Systems Conference Silicon Valley, he mentioned that one of the new technologies his company is working on is the triple combo chip. Today, most vendors produce a Wi-Fi/Bluetooth dual combo chip with a single antenna for smartphone and tablet markets. What if there were a Wi-Fi/Bluetooth/ZigBee triple combo chip and it started showing up in home routers?

Now maybe we’re getting somewhere on this. The winning strategy in this market is not about having a little isolated ZigBee network with your thermostat and your clothes dryer talking to your electric meter, which talks to the smart grid. That’s an important start, but it’s not the end game. Bluetooth devices have the same issue. This all has to go beyond a couple of devices paired to each other. We see this same dynamic taking place in the Continua initiative for health care devices, with the same networks involved in the same place at the same time. Smart energy in the home and office will undoubtedly go the same direction – interoperability and coexistence.

I’m reading the latest releases from the ZigBee Alliance about the group’s partnerships with the IPSO Alliance and the SunSpec Alliance. Both of these partnerships are considering what should be included in the upcoming ZigBee Smart Energy 2.0 profile, looking at IP interoperability within the smart grid and new ideas like microgrid management and integration, respectively. These organizations are getting it, understanding that partnerships to foster interoperability between networking standards will be the winning play.

Dan’s right, Wi-Fi isn’t going away anytime soon, but a new use case will carve out space for other networks. It won’t be long before we’ll be sitting on a couch with something that looks like a tablet reviewing energy usage profiles and reconfiguring appliances accordingly. When Redpine, Atheros, Broadcom, or whoever else begins making that triple combo chip and it starts showing up in both routers and tablets, with software support integrating Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and ZigBee pretty much seamlessly, I’ll say you heard it in Deep Green first.

Does this sound like the world you’re seeing, or do you think this future is more suited for smart appliance tech? E-mail me at [email protected] or tweet me at @dondingee and share your ideas.


Don Dingee (Editorial Director)