ZigBee, Thread take bigger step toward reducing IoT fragmentation

The ZigBee Alliance and the Thread Group are doing their part to diminish fragmentation in the Internet of Things (IoT), announcing they will offer an end-to-end solution for IP-based IoT networks later this year.

The solution will become part of the ZigBee Alliance's set of product development specifications, technologies' branding and certification programs. It follows an agreement announced in April of last year where the two entities said they would collaborate. Over the ensuing months, they hammered out just how that would happen.

The IoT space has been fraught with fragmentation that seemingly only keeps growing as more organizations announce IoT initiatives. But Tobin Richardson, president and CEO of the ZigBee Alliance, said he believes the two organizations are taking an important step toward IoT unification. Addressing fragmentation has been a priority for the alliance over the past year as it unifies previous ZigBee application specs into ZigBee 3.0. Just last month, the alliance announced a cooperative agreement with the EnOcean Alliance, a consortium for battery-less, wireless smart buildings and smart homes.

Thread, whose backers include Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM), Samsung and Nest Labs, is focused on devices in and around the home. Both ZigBee and Thread are based on 802.15.4, so it's a good fit, and they both share many of the same members.

Whereas ZigBee has been around for more than a dozen years, Thread, when it started in 2014, set out to work on the network layer and did not want to get into the application layer technology like ZigBee provides, explained Chris Boross, president of the Thread Group and technical product marketing manager at Nest. "We didn't want to sort of recreate the wheel by coming up with yet another application layer technology," he said.

Thread will provide the networking protocol that gets devices securely onto a network and allows them to have reliable IPv6 communications in the home and ZigBee will provide the application library technology that sits on the Thread network. The collaboration should lead to better end products, according to Boross. The plan is to release a complete solution, including an end-to-end certification program, during the third quarter of this year. 

Out in the land of low-power, low-bandwidth IoT space, companies like Nokia (NYSE:NOK), Ericsson (NASDAQ: ERIC) and Intel say that Narrowband-IoT, or NB-IoT, is the best path forward for using LTE to power IoT devices. But the types of areas those LTE IoT standards are targeting are wide area networks and neighborhood networking; Thread is purely focused on in-home networking, Boross said.

Broadly speaking, he said, Thread and the LTE standards are not competitive, but rather complementary and interoperable at the IP layer. "We see these networks being tied together via IPv6," he told FierceWirelessTech, adding that he expects Thread to be deployed and used by cellular operations, including potentially cellular operators, that want to field connected home devices and services for the residential market.

Interoperability in the broad IoT market remains a challenge. Both in a blog post and during an address at the 2016 AT&T Developer Summit in Las Vegas, John Donovan, senior executive vice president of Technology and Operations at AT&T (NYSE: T), suggested that open source may provide some answers. "How do we get all those billions of devices, from different companies, on different networks, in different parts of the world, to work together? We think the open source developer community has a huge role here," he said in the blog. "OpenDaylight is spearheading a project called the Internet of Things Data Management project. By doing this in open source, we can address concerns about vendor lock-in. We hope this project, or a similar effort, gets the support it needs."

For more:
- see this ZigBee Alliance press release
- see this E-week article

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AT&T exec: IoT standards groups need to work together