Q&A: A wireless standard that could change the smart home market

Despite optimistic predictions, smart home solutions are still not particular popular with the majority of end users. Part of the problem seems to be that most devices and systems that are currently available are still rather expensive and therefore not suitable for the mass market. Security concerns and the lack of multi-vendor compatible networks also play an important role.

In a move to meet the needs of more customers, manufacturers are starting to turn to the new wireless standard Ultra-Low Energy (ULE) which is supposed to lower the costs of smart home solutions whilst increasing security and ease of use.

We spoke to René Kohlmann, chairman of the ULE Alliance, about the new certification programme for ULE devices, the forthcoming DECT World Conference, the future of wireless communication, and the latest developments on the smart home market.

DECT is the leading standard for cordless telephones. ULE is a new standard based on DECT. What’s the difference between the two?

ULE stands for Ultra-Low Energy. This standard is extremely energy efficient, but still capable of transmitting voice, data, and video. It is therefore perfectly suited for smart home communication.

Amongst other things, a sleep mode for the portable parts in the DECT standard has been added to extend the battery lifetime to over 5 years. When activated, the sensor will wake up to transmit the message over the air before it goes back to sleep again. And the actuators wake up and react to a message from the gateway instead of being switched on non-stop.

Another advantage of ULE is that regular DECT gateways can be made compatible to both ULE and DECT with a small software update, which means that many consumers can build their smart home around the existing gateway. As a result, smart homes are now becoming affordable for many consumers for the first time.

One of the main talking points at the DECT World Conference will be how the wireless technology for smart and secure wireless communications will look like in 2020 and beyond. What do you think the future will bring?

We predict that IP connectivity will be expanded to all the wireless connected nodes. All nodes will get an internet address and can be directly accessed from the network. The application layer will be agnostic for any underlying wireless technologies allowing any node to communicate to any other node independent of the technology used.

With its 6LoWPAN API, ULE offers a standard way of integrating nodes into a global network. From one single star network, any node in and around the house can be accessed via the internet.

There will be more solutions for wireless communication in the future, and ULE will play an important role. I expect that each consumer will have more than 75 wireless nodes around him, ranging from WiFi equipment, to BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) for all kind of personal gadgets, to ULE for home appliances and smart home control.

All of these products have to offer the services the consumer is looking for, as well as an easy and natural integration into a person’s life. The consumer is not interested in a standard. He is only interested in ease of use, ease of installation, and zero maintenance. That’s exactly what certified ULE products offer.

How many ULE products have been certified so far?

To assure end users as well as companies and retailers that ULE products conform to a set of standards, the ULE Alliance introduced a certification programme for ULE-based devices last year. Over 30 products have already passed the certification process, and there are many more products in the pipeline. We have had to install an additional test-bed in the lab in order to cope with the growing demand.

An overview of the products that have already been certified can be found on our website. Our test logo also helps users to see whether a device has been certified or not.

We hope that our work inspires companies and developers to create new products and solutions based on ULE. There are already some really good products out there, but we are hoping for many more in the near future. At the DECT World Conference, companies will have the opportunity to present their ULE products in a 3-minute elevator pitch, and I am very much looking forward to it.

When is a ULE product a great product?

A ULE product is a great product when it harnesses the strengths of ULE and when it works 'out of the box'. It will connect to a single internet access point, which is already integrated in the modem by many service providers. No complex node or network planning is needed to cover the whole customer home, including the garden.

Ideally, the product should also work in connection with products from other manufacturers. This way, users can combine products from different companies to one network, which gives the user more options. It also makes the smart home more affordable as you can use products you already have. Certified ULE products are compatible with devices from other manufacturers.

ULE products can also offer a unique user experience by allowing two-way voice communication on top of data communication and other services.

Why is voice control so important for smart homes?

Voice is a natural way of controlling anything in your home. With voice control, there’s no need for buttons or displays or anything else. The consumer can simply ask for certain services like 'switch on the lights' or 'play my favourite music', and he can get voice prompts back.

Unlike with other solutions for voice enabled devices, ULE does not require any additional external hardware to implement voice control. A single ULE chip does all the work.

How do the cost of ULE chipsets compare to other technologies?

ULE chipsets are cheaper than those for other wireless standards like ZigBee. Even better: In many cases, new chipsets aren’t even required at all. With a software update, DECT chipsets are capable of handling DECT as well as ULE. DECT chips can be found across the world. The market is highly established. Over 3 billion DECT devices have already been sold. The chip manufacturers have developed chips that allow companies to offer optimised single chip DECT telephone as well as ULE devices.

Another advantage of ULE is that no additional router nodes are required thanks to the single internet access point of ULE. The service providers have also discovered the benefits of ULE and are putting a new infrastructure in place, including modems that offer DECT/ULE in addition to WiFi. This way, users can easily setup reliable, cost effective and secure networks based on ULE.

How does the industry address the security concerns many end users have?

We want to feel safe at home. To win the hearts of the consumers, smart homes have to be secure. No-one wants to live in a house that can easily be accessed by unauthorised third parties. That’s why it is important that all information and data are perfectly secure. ULE is a particularly secure standard as it addresses security on several layers of the protocol. In the lower layers, the DECT and ULE standards offer the secure communication protocol AES128, for example.

Why has the smart home market not reached its full potential yet?

Many solutions that have been available so far were very expensive and not particularly user-friendly. ULE is reducing complexity of installation and maintenance and will help provide easy, simple and secured wireless internet access from the cloud to any node in the network, offering a wide range of services and benefits to consumers.

For example, in the Netherlands, smart thermostats are being deployed rapidly from all kind of companies. Now that the companies are offering solutions that have the user in mind, I’m confident that the smart home market is at the beginning of a bright future.

René Kohlmann, chairman of the ULE Alliance

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