Wirepas awaits ‘non-cellular’ 5G approval that would move it away from Bluetooth for long-range lighting mesh (UPDATED)

Oct. 6, 2021
The Finnish software company can already support billions of devices, and it expects to offer a second approach next year.

We recently wrote that Finnish software company Wirepas will by next year be able to control billions of lights and other Internet-connected devices via its mesh technology. To set the record straight: It already can. But what’s coming next year is another approach that the company will use to support projects set over wider distances, such as outdoor lighting and smart cities.

For a little background, Wirepas as we explained in our Sept. 24 story provides a mesh scheme that is considered proprietary, but that is highly regarded by some for its ability to support many more lights than better-known open mesh technology such as Bluetooth and Zigbee. Wirepas says its theoretical limit is 4 billion devices, including lights.

Wirepas can do that today, through a technology that it used to call Wirepas Mesh, and which somewhere along the way it started to call Wirepas Massive. That’s where LEDs Magazine got it wrong. We stated that Massive is coming next year. Mea culpa, although in a phone interview a few days ago, Wirepas CEO Teppo Hemia assured us that there has been some general confusion on this subject, so we’re not the only ones who mixed up our Meshes and Massives.

One end user that has seen clearly on all of this is the Scandic Pasila hotel in Helsinki, which, as the largest indoor user of Wirepas-connected lighting, is controlling a few thousand lights using Massive, according to Hemia. It is also using the mesh network and embedded sensors for a tracking system that helps staff such as the cleaners to locate items, and which also monitors climate and air quality throughout the hotel. Wirepas worked with guestroom management system provider Mount Kelvin, another Finnish company, on the deployment.

Wirepas’ Massive system actually uses Bluetooth chips for radio communication. The Bluetooth transmits messages between apps and luminaires, as well as from one luminaire to another. In the Wirepas Massive mesh, each fixture acts as a router telling the next what to do. The Bluetooth association ends with the radio that is, the software that communicates over the radio waves is Wirepas’, rather than Bluetooth’s standard software, as it is in Bluetooth mesh deployments.

Here’s where a change or at least an addition is coming. Wirepas is getting ready to offer a second mesh scheme that it won’t call Massive. It refers to the forthcoming product as Wirepas Private 5G.

Rather than use Bluetooth radio chips, Wirepas Private 5G will make use of LTE cellular chips, Hemia told us. The chip will support a mesh communication scheme device to device rather than a more expensive, conventional cellular scheme, in which devices connect back to a base station. The Wirepas scheme is based on the DECT protocol associated with cordless telephones.

Wirepas refers to Wirepas Private 5G as “the worlds first and only non-cellular 5G connectivity network for enterprise IoT.” It is awaiting approval of the technology as part of the 5G standard by the Geneva-based International Telecommunications Union (ITU). When we spoke with Hemia, he was optimistic that the ITU would give the thumbs up to DECT-2020 on Oct. 15.

Wirepas would then offer software tapping LTE chips.

“The first product from Wirepas for that standard is targeted to come out next year,” Hemia said. “We haven’t given exact timing. It is clearly a higher-cost solution than Wirepas Massive but has important use cases because it has longer range. Smart cities is one, but also electricity smart metering, where we already have customers.”

While the LTE silicon in Wirepas Private 5G is different from the Bluetooth silicon in Wirepas Massive, the software that Wirepas will provide will be the same for both. That software includes radio communication protocols as well as instructions for connecting mesh networks back to the Internet and to cloud systems.

The lexicon surrounding these developments can be confusing. To the unfamiliar eye, the “private” in Wirepas Private 5G might convey the proprietary nature of the Wirepas protocol. But if Wirepas Private 5G becomes a standard protocol (freely available to all) with ITU approval, then how could it also be a proprietary one?

The answer is that it will not be proprietary. The “private” in Wirepas Private 5G refers not to the standard versus proprietary nature of the protocol; rather, it refers to the private ownership of mesh networks that will characterize the 5G deployments, Hemia said. Wirepas Private 5G operates in the 1.9-GHz frequency band, compared to 2.4 GHz for Massive.

The more-expensive LTE-based Wirepas Private 5G networks will cover longer distances than the Bluetooth-based Massive networks, at around 3 km compared to tens of meters, he noted.

Another head scratcher: Assuming the ITU standardizes Wirepas Private 5G, won’t that essentially open up the “proprietary” designs to potential Bluetooth-based Massive users?

The answer is yes, sort of. But there will still be a difference in business models between the Massive world and the Bluetooth world. Massive users will have to pay an upfront fee, sometimes called a royalty, for their software. Bluetooth users do not pay such a fee.

But as Hemia pointed out, there are other costs associated with Bluetooth, such as membership fees to belong to the Bluetooth Special Interest Group.

“There is no free lunch,” he noted, referring to costs that Bluetooth users encounters. “We do charge a royalty, but system costs are less and reliability is greater.”

Massive pays back in many ways, including its ability to scale up, Hemia pointed out. Another advantage of Massive, he claimed, is that it offers nearly 100 times wider bandwidth, enabling it to support not just lighting control but “beyond lighting” functions such as the tracking in place at the Scandic Pasila hotel, and additional features such as over-the-air software updates.

Wirepas, Bluetooth, Zigbee, and other wireless communication technologies are, of course, not just for lighting controls. In one of Wirepas’ largest non-lighting deployments, Massive is connecting 920,000 devices in a smart meter installation in Oslo.

MARK HALPER  is a contributing editor for LEDs Magazine, and an energy, technology, and business journalist ([email protected]).

*Updated Oct. 7, 2021 11:55 AM for hotel name correction.

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About the Author

Mark Halper | Contributing Editor, LEDs Magazine, and Business/Energy/Technology Journalist

Mark Halper is a freelance business, technology, and science journalist who covers everything from media moguls to subatomic particles. Halper has written from locations around the world for TIME Magazine, Fortune, Forbes, the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Guardian, CBS, Wired, and many others. A US citizen living in Britain, he cut his journalism teeth cutting and pasting copy for an English-language daily newspaper in Mexico City. Halper has a BA in history from Cornell University.