Cellular networks offer real benefits in connecting LED street lights (MAGAZINE)

June 9, 2016
The SSL industry is clearly headed toward connected lighting, and Shonika Vijay of Strategies Unlimited explains why the mobile data networks that link smartphones to the Internet may also be a good option for LED street lights.

The SSL industry is clearly headed toward connected lighting, and SHONIKA VIJAY of Strategies Unlimited explains why the mobile data networks that link smartphones to the Internet may also be a good option for LED street lights.

We are not facing a shortage of communication and networking options in today's connected solid-state lighting (SSL) age. Many new and exciting products and lighting connectivity technologies are introduced every quarter. Though cellular connectivity for outdoor LED lighting is not a new concept, it is still fairly new in North America. Some notable cellular installations have taken place in Italy, India, and closer to home in Los Angeles.

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I've been curious about the use of cellular connectivity in outdoor SSL applications. The idea is intriguing. Now instead of installing external hardware or devices such as gateways or controllers, one can install a small chip into these luminaires and voilà, it acknowledges the luminaire and starts working right away.

I don't intend this as an endorsement, since I do see some possible market barriers with cellular connectivity. But consider the benefits. It is a good solution for street light applications where noise and interference won't be a big issue. Also, it can enable instant commissioning during installation - the device can announce itself and there is no troubleshooting after the luminaire has been installed. With other networks, the connection with the gateway and the luminaire would have to be verified to ensure seamless integration into the lighting communication network. And the biggest draw of cellular for me is that now the customer doesn't have to manage extraneous assets and devices such as the gateway, wiring, and any other external devices used to connect the luminaire to a central management system. Also, with the NEMA-specified node receptacle, the existing LED luminaire market can be easily retrofitted with a cellular-enabled smart node.

Well, you may ask: Why is cellular connectivity slower to take off in North America? In my opinion, one of the sticking points is the involvement of cellular companies to facilitate the installation and operation of connected street lights. Though alternative networks do require other devices to enable connectivity, the manufacturer has close to total control in making sure the luminaires are connected. With cellular connectivity, since the manufacturer has to work with cellular companies to utilize their cell towers, the availability of cellular networks for street lights depends on the established relationship or contractual agreement between the lighting provider and the cellular company.

It is important to note that manufacturers haven't faced major roadblocks when attempting to establish a contractual agreement with cellular companies in other regions such as India and Europe. In North America, however, both market structure and a general hesitance among cellular companies have set larger obstacles. It may be a tougher market to enter and deploy large-scale installations in multiple locations. Still, the large-scale, cellular-networked LED street light installation currently happening in Los Angeles demonstrates the possibilities.

Another factor to consider is that the average selling price for cellular-networked street lights might vary from region to region depending on the pricing agreement between the manufacturer and the cellular provider. And though the technology might work well for most street light applications, it encounters limitations when put into applications where noise and disturbances might be a bigger issue, such as in parking garage and lot, canopy, and wall pack applications.

The industry is always trying to rally for one standard lighting communication technology that could cater to all lighting applications. But the world of lighting is very diverse. At Strategies Unlimited, we categorize major lighting applications as healthcare, retail, office, hospitality, residential, industrial, street lighting, parking garage, parking lot, wall pack and flood lights, and canopy lighting. As we can see, it can be argued that most of the lighting applications are unique with respect to one another and may require different smart lighting connectivity.

Cellular connectivity is one network in the universe of the lighting communications technologies being deployed today, such as DALI, ZigBee, power line communication, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, etc. It is now more important than ever for companies to carry multiple lighting communication technologies in their smart lighting portfolios so specific project needs can be met. It might be more important to satisfy the lighting application needs over pushing a particular communication technology that may not be ideal for the project.