Is Cisco’s Path to Networked Lighting Via 6LoWPAN?

What will be the wireless standard that acts as the glue between devices — from connected light bulbs, to wireless thermostats to connected appliances — in the connected smart energy home? One dark horse that has made some headway in recent weeks is a low power wireless standard called 6LoWPAN, which uses a wireless mesh network architecture (wireless nodes that connect with their peers instead of a central device) and is also based on IPv6, an Internet numbering system that has an almost infinite amount of IP addresses and is commonly being used to wirelessly connect the “Internet of things.”

All this jargon means that as consumer electronics companies and Internet firms look to develop wireless products for the smart energy home, 6LoWPAN — and its more Internet-friendly characteristics — is gaining some headway. Here’s some examples: Last week, chip maker NXP Semiconductors unveiled its GreenChip package that can wirelessly connect lightbulbs and is based on 6LoWPAN. Cisco, meanwhile, showed it affinity for 6LoWPAN by buying up wireless network company Arch Rock last year, and Cisco plans to use the wireless technology for both smart meter neighborhood-area networks and low-power local wireless networks.

In fact I could also envision these companies’ moves into 6LoWPAN — from one of the world’s largest Internet infrastructure players and from a hefty chip company — as somehow becoming integrated together, which would give 6LoWPAN even more clout in the wireless smart energy home.

Cisco, NXP & The Smart Energy Home?

NXP’s initial partners for its GreenChip push are lighting maker TCP, and home energy management startup Greenwave Reality. The latter was founded by Greg Memo and Martin Manniche, who were formerly the general manager and CTO of Cisco’s Consumer Business Organization (formerly Linksys), respectively. I talked with them back in February about their approach to the home energy management market, and while they weren’t explicit, both hinted at the potential for a partnership with Cisco down the road.

Cisco has announced interest in home energy management via its partnership with home energy startup Control4. It also has far broader plans to network the smart grid from smart meters to utilities, but it hasn’t really stated its preferred method to link homes and grid networks together.

But last year, Cisco bought Arch Rock, a San Francisco-based startup with an IP-compliant smart meter networking standard called PhyNet that’s based on 6LoWPAN. The basic plan for Cisco’s neighborhood wireless smart grid was revealed then: to create an end-to-end IP-based smart meter networking architecture with radios that can replace the mish-mash of systems now used to connect smart meters in neighborhood area networks to the utility.

Big smart meter maker Itron, in turn, has a partnership with Cisco to work on end-to-end IP networking, and Cisco has said that Itron’s OpenWay system can be remotely upgraded to support a Cisco-Arch Rock system. So the question to me is, could a Cisco-Arch Rock-Itron smart meter network link up with an NXP-Greenwave Reality home lighting network, all using the same 6LowPAN technology?

Using 6LoWPAN to connect smart meters to utilities and homes to smart meters could be a very useful feature in the smart meter space. Almost every smart meter today that’s made to also connect to in-home devices uses two separate radios for those tasks. The higher-power meter-to-meter connections tend to be done via proprietary 900-megahertz radios from Silver Spring Networks, Itron and fellow meter makers Landis+Gyr and Elster. The lower-power, meter-to-home connections tend to rely on ZigBee, a utility-favored networking technology that leads in installs in most North American smart meters and is built to communicate with home area networks of the future.

6LoWPAN Over ZigBee?

But not everyone thinks ZigBee will be robust enough to work for meter-to-home networks across the wide range of home environments. ZigBee’s current technology isn’t IP-compliant, and while ZigBee is working with Wi-Fi and HomePlug on the IP-compliant, next-generation of the ZigBee standard, that process is going slowly. What’s more, many smart meters built to manage current ZigBee technology may be unable to serve the more robust memory requirements of the upcoming next-gen ZigBee standard. On the other hand, 6LoWPAN is already an IP-based network.

Last time I talked to Cisco about its Arch Rock plans, its networking technology was progressing along two separate tracks. The work to link smart meters in higher-power, neighborhood area networks was going on under the auspices of IEEE’s 802.15 Smart Utility Networks (SUN) Task Group 4G. A different standards effort called 802.15.4e was aimed at creating low-power networking that could keep meters networked during power outages — or, perhaps, link smart meters to home area networks.

Cisco hasn’t said much about its Arch Rock plans since it bought the startup in September, and many are wondering whether Cisco’s new corporate focus leaves much room for development on smart grid at all. Still, I’m curious to hear your thoughts — feel free to let me know if you think I’m on the right track.

Question of the week

Could Cisco link its Arch Rock smart meter networks to NXP and Greenwave Reality’s new home lighting network?
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