Why Open Standards are the Key to Building Smarter Cities and Grids

By Phil Beecher

President & CEO

Wi-SUN Alliance

July 27, 2022


Why Open Standards are the Key to Building Smarter Cities and Grids

Across the globe, cities, and communities are becoming smarter, safer, more energy efficient, and healthier places to live. This isn’t by accident. It’s down to the hard work, vision, and resourcefulness of a multitude of talented stakeholders. At the heart of these sit the engineers designing and building embedded computing and communications systems that add intelligence and connectivity into applications such as street lighting, water treatment plants, building automation systems, and electricity grids.

Yet to turn a smart city or smart grid vision into reality, engineers must build on solid foundations. That means highly scalable and reliable networks that enable a wide range of embedded computing devices to interconnect securely, while supporting granular management and maintenance. This is where field area networks (FANs), built with open standards and using a wireless mesh topology, come in.

Before getting into the role of open standards in building smart cities and grids, it’s important to note the importance of robust communications protocols. There is a significant amount of effort required in the development and validation of a good communications protocol. The best and most enduring communications protocols have been developed within standards development organizations, where they can receive the scrutiny of a large and diverse group of peers.

Why Open Standards Matter

We know that open standards work. We’re all familiar with Bluetooth, Z-Wave, and WiFi because they “work.” They work because they are peer reviewed and tested. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) make certain that an open standard like IEEE 802.11 does what it’s supposed to and the WiFi Alliance ensures that products are rigorously tested before they are launched freely into the technical landscape.

Once an open standard is proven and available, there is typically a steady increase in adoption over time. For instance, in a recent Wi-SUN research report, The Journey to IoT Maturity, the importance of open standards to IoT adopters responsible for smart city and smart grid deployments is made clear. Today 86% of respondents cited that they feel that industry-wide open standards for IoT deployments were either very important or absolutely critical (an increase of almost 10% compared to five years ago). This critical need is also true for smart utility solutions, with 84% responding the same (up from 79% in 2017).

The importance of open standards is easy to see. Open standards and interoperability provide a bulwark against vendor lock-in and stranded assets, and ensure complete systems are built on mature, reliable, secure, and stress-tested technologies. In fact, vendor lock-in is an issue that further drives the need for open standards. In 2022, 78% of respondents demand a lack of vendor lock-in as a feature (compared to 66% in 2017). The lack of vendor lock-in simplifies integration of IoT devices, solutions, and software with existing infrastructure. 

How Wireless Mesh Adds Value

Another key design consideration is the topology of the underlying network. In this regard, wireless mesh offers several benefits over star networks for smart city and utility applications. First the decentralized nature offered by a mesh network supports the deployment of edge computing devices such as smart meters or fault detection sensors on power distribution grids. That will enhance the customer experience, and reduce the number and duration of costly outages, enabling rapid response by network engineers. Power can be rerouted intelligently if there’s an outage, and malfunctioning parts of the network could be disconnected to save costs otherwise associated with faulty devices dumping power. Mesh-based FANs can also support voltage/VAR optimization (VVO) systems to reduce energy wastage.

The value that mesh networks bring is recognized by users. Over the past five years, the use of star topologies has dropped from 21% to 12% among those surveyed, while use of hybrid networks has grown a full 10% (from 58% to 68%). Users are increasing their technical awareness of the options available to them and are approaching IoT networking planning from a more mature stance.

Standards that Implementors Can Draw From

For embedded computing engineers, open standards can also help to accelerate product development and minimize costs. For starters, there’s the advantage of gaining reasonable and non-discriminatory access to design information and technology. For example, ARM provides an open-source version of the Wi-SUN FAN protocol stack as part of the ARM Mbed library, which engineers can integrate into their own code, reducing development time and debugging effort. In addition, there’s a wide range of available protocol stacks, design info and reference implementations to help build and future-proof products.

IP connectivity has become ubiquitous for connected products. IP, and particularly IPV6, has significant benefits, simplifying connection to a range of network services, including cloud connectivity for example, AWS, Microsoft Azure, and other providers. The inclusion of protocols such as Constrained Application Protocol (CoAP) simplifies the integration of low cost, low-energy consumption devices into large networks, together with application protocols such as LwM2M, provide interoperability with cloud services

Embedded computing engineers are being called on to use IoT to build smarter grids and cities, and the path to success for them is to embrace open standards. By doing so they can accelerate time-to-market, improve collaboration and utilize interoperable hardware, all while staying competitive and staying on budget.

Read Phil's previous blog, Making Smart Cities More Secure

Phil Beecher is the president and CEO of Wi-SUN Alliance, a global non-profit member-based association driving the proliferation of interoperable wireless solutions for use in smart cities and other IoT applications. He can be reached at [email protected]

As smart cities, smart utilities, and large-scale corporate IoT networks continue to grow, so will the attention of cyber criminals looking for new ways to make money. That is why security-by-design is a prerequisite for all connected devices.

More from Phil