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CHASING GROWTH: MODERNIZING INDIA’S UTILITIES REQUIRES GLOBAL STANDARDS

Phil Beecher (right), President & CEO, Wi-SUN Alliance and Amarjeet Kumar (left), Regional Coordinator, Wi-SUN Alliance in New Delhi.
Phil Beecher (right), President & CEO, Wi-SUN Alliance and Amarjeet Kumar (left), Regional Coordinator, Wi-SUN Alliance in New Delhi.

After successfully creating a standard after a request to IEEE, the alliance worked to include the Indian spectrum in Wi-SUN specifications and standards, in all the certification test plans

As India embarks on a frantic pace for growth, the central government is laser focused on modernizing its utilities, building up smart cities and providing the right impetus for the semiconductor industry to thrive domestically. In an exclusive conversation with SME Channels, Phil Beecher, President & CEO, Wi-SUN Alliance and Amarjeet Kumar, Regional Coordinator, Wi-SUN Alliance discuss the global alliance’s key focus areas and how open standards can help solve India’s most pressing concerns.

“We are trying to educate (PPP Companies)  them and try to bring them on the page, making them understand the importance of communication systems in the big picture. “

 Amarjeet Kumar, Regional Coordinator, Wi-SUN Alliance

As a global alliance, Wi-SUN is facilitating the adoption of IoT into operable solutions, acting as an excellent interface between industry, academics, governments, and utilities. What are your key focus areas and where do you want to head going ahead?

Phil: Wi-SUN was initially formed to promote interoperable solutions for large scale networks in the utility industry. We started off with smart metre deployments. I was involved in standards development in IEEE, which was primarily based in the US then for US utilities who wanted to not be locked into a single vendor. They wanted vendor choice and vendor competition. So I chaired the standards committee that started the journey for an open standard. Then we formed the Wi-SUN alliance to take it to the next step. Just because you have open standards doesn’t mean there is interoperability. This is why Wi-SUN developed a testing and certification program that we use to test products or third party test labs would test the products and check if they conformed with the standards and interoperated with each other. So that was the beginning of the alliance.

It was primarily for the North American and Japanese markets. It started in the US in 2012 and in Japan after the Fukushima incident required the country to look at energy efficiency and they adopted Wi-SUN technology to help them monitor and manage their home energy consumption.

Within IEEE, we worked together to develop an amendment to the specification that was suitable for the India frequency band where Wi-SUN now operates.

“Within IEEE, we worked together to develop an amendment to the specification that was suitable for the India frequency band where Wi-SUN now operates. “

 Phil Beecher, President & CEO, Wi-SUN Alliance

Coming to the India chapter, how is it going for Wi-SUN here? How is Wi-SUN functioning inside India? What is the market response so far and what is the road ahead?

Amarjeet: In India, we started, seven to eight years ago. We began with developing the standard and found that there are major gaps in terms of the standards available for the Indian ecosystem. So, we ended up creating a standard in IEEE. We submitted a request stating that the Indian frequency spectrum is not available as part of the global open standard. Once we created a standard, Phil and I worked together to create a standard that was included in IEEE. This was to ensure the Indian frequency spectrum is a part of the global standard, which was previously not. One philosophy of Wi-SUN Alliance is that we cannot have a non-standard piece.

Everything has to be based on open global standards. So, that was a hindrance for Wi-SUN Alliance to get into the Indian market because there was no standard for the frequency spectrum, which we are supposed to use in India. First, we ended up submitting a request to IEEE to create a new standard. Once we created the standard, we worked within the Wi-SUN Alliance to include the Indian spectrum in Wi-SUN specifications and standards, in all the certification test plans. Three years ago, we opened the physical layer certification for the Indian ecosystem.

There are many devices today which are already certified as a physical layer for the Indian spectrum. Again, what we did is over a period of time. Twenty-two years ago, the Wi-SUN standard was adopted by IEEE as an open standard globally known as IEEE 2857. And we have a liaison agreement between the Bureau of Indian Standards and various global open SDOs, standard development organisations like IEEE, that BIS can adopt any standard of IEEE.

So, using whatever channel was already established, we evaluated and looked at various RFMS communication technologies available across the globe. And we found that Wi-SUN FAN is more suitable for the Indian ecosystem. So, we adopted IEEE 2857 as one of the Indian national standards.

While adopting, we also saw that there were certain gaps because when the standard was adopted, it was predominantly for the U.S. market. We made an amendment to accommodate the Indian requirement, to ensure that the standard being adopted doesn’t create more trouble for the Indian ecosystem. Last year (2023), that standard was published, and today we have an Indian standard that every ecosystem can adopt.

Going forward, we are going to have more and more certifications, through which interoperability can be achieved. Since Wi-SUN is not only for utility, but for communication networks deployed in large scale IOT networks, India is the market to be in. Energy metres are one of the applications. The same network can be used for street lights, the same network can be used for your, maybe your signage, right? Any smart city application which needs limited data can be used or can use this particular standard for deploying this kind of interoperable solution.

The Indian government is laser-focused on three red hot sectors: Smart Cities, Agriculture, and Energy Management. All these sectors are bubbling with promises. How do you look at this market opportunity and how do you want to leverage it?

Phil: Our initial focus was the utility industry. But we’ve discovered more recently, probably within the past five years, that smart city technology can use the same sort of communication network.

The problems that the utilities face with metering in large urban environments, for example, are very similar to the problems municipalities face. You’ve got a lot of nodes. You’ve got quite difficult urban landscapes to deal with, whether it be very old cities or new ones.

In London, for example, there is this mix of buildings that are several hundred years old with very thick walls, along with concrete glass and steel. They’ve chosen Wi-SUN Field Area Network for their street lighting, because it works in all of these troublesome environments. The problems the cities face for IoT communication is similar to the utility problems.

In the US, Miami has Florida Power & Light. The same company is responsible for electricity metering and providing street lighting. They integrated four million smart meters into their network, and then they added another 500,000 street lights onto the same network. With the Wi-SUN standard, these devices can run on the same network, and the same management, with the scalability that goes with it.

We are focusing on promoting what our member companies think we should be promoting. We’re a member organization, and our revenue comes from the member companies, so they choose what we should promote. But what we found is that there are a number of smart agriculture projects that have been undertaken by member companies, and they’re quite diverse.

There’s seaweed farming in Japan, shrimp farms and fish farms, along with greenhouse management. There’s another project where farmers in Japan are growing mangoes in greenhouses, so they can control humidity, airflow, etc. And then we’re also seeing deployments in vertical farming in Singapore.

There is a huge, diverse range of applications that the Wi-SUN standard can be used for. In fact, there is also the health sector that is using Wi-Sun, where senior citizens are given medical sensors instead of having them stay at care homes. This is a project that occurred between the University of Kyoto, the Japanese Science Council, and OMRON, who provide sensors for senior citizens, and then monitor their health and well-being in their own homes.

It was Albert Einstein who once famously said, “Without science, religion is lame; and without religion, science is blind.” In the same way, without academics, industry is lame.  When it comes to this healthy interface between the academics and the industries, I would like to further explore whether you have any special arrangement with any institute of global repute?

Phil: Wi-SUN has the Smart City Living Lab in IIIT-Hyderabad. IIIT-H is working with Silicon Labs, which is a member of Wi-SUN. Silicon Labs just recently decided to focus on IoT. So, all of their semiconductors, and their radios are IoT focused. They sold off other parts of their business. So, from the academic point of view, we have that sort of scenario where you have a university, they’re putting together some research projects, they’re taking commercial products, seeing what else they can do with it. In India, Hyderabad is just one collaboration.

Kyoto University has a similar program going on. There are four or five research students there who are looking at radio technology and networking to understand its performance and innovate.

What the Wi-SUN alliance tries to do is take the knowledge that comes from the university and put it back into the standard environment. So, universities are in a great place where they can do research, and help advance technology. Within the Wi-SUN Alliance, we have an academic membership program funded by member companies. However, the universities have free membership. So, there’s no charge, but they are expected to contribute technical papers or similar technology from that point of view. We have contributions from Kyoto, but there are also contributions coming from universities in Brazil, the US and Germany.  

When it comes to utilities, in India, a majority of them are still run by the government. So, what are the nature and the level of engagement that Wi-SUN has so far been able to achieve with the Indian government or any PSU?

Amarjeet: We have around 80 to 90 utilities in India, and 90% of them are run by the government. Unfortunately, in the Indian ecosystem, if you talk about communication systems with the utility, the knowledge gap is really big. But when it comes to private utilities like Tata Power or CSE or BSE, some of them have spent a good amount of time creating labs, conducting experiments and innovating. And yet, we lack a big communication network. We have been trying hard from ISDF, to conduct a lot of training.

I personally train the utilities and take classes for them, on communication systems. We also have a lot of open houses, where we bring people from utilities and explain to them the different communication technology options, how to choose a technology and more. From Wi-SUN perspective, we are engaged with a few of the utilities, obviously, the private ones primarily, because the problem with the government utilities is that they don’t want to directly engage with the industry body.

So, we try to engage through some of these PPP companies, private-public-private companies or through their standard bodies like IEEE or BIS. We are trying to educate them and try to bring them on the page, making them understand the importance of communication systems in the big picture.

Recently, the government of India approved a mammoth Rs 1.2 lakh Cr. Investment to set up 3 semiconductor manufacturing plants inside the country: two in Gujarat, and another in Assam. The government is pulling up its socks to turbocharge the entire silicon ecosystem inside the country. Since much of your story is written through the semiconductor, how do you see this overall scene that’s unfolding inside the country and how is it going to propel Wi-Sun’s story inside India? 

Phil: I think it’s great. India expects most of the production of Indian products to be done within the country. But up until now, most of the semiconductors, if not all, need to be imported. So, with Wi-SUN, there’s no licensing encumberment for the semiconductor industry as we are a global standard. They can go straight out and get the IEEE specification, and the BIS spec, and make silicon based on that.

So, I think it means, as you saw, we are trying to build an ecosystem. If that ecosystem is within one country, then it helps accelerate everything. Since Wi-SUN is a global standard, it provides an opportunity for expanding India’s export market as well. Part of the motivation for choosing global standards, certainly within the semiconductor world, is the economy of scale. So, I think it costs around $30 million to make a chip. You need a global market to justify that investment and that return on investment.

Amarjeet: I had a discussion with one of the probable semiconductor companies, which is going to be launched in India. The idea is that they want to look at our BOM, the hardware components, and then can we list out the components, which are going to be on a high volume. Can we manufacture those in India? So, on those lines, we are actually helping with reverse engineering. We know that to make this solution work, these are the 10 main components we need to use.

Can we make these 10 components in India? We know what the standard is, so whoever is going to manufacture chips, not only for India, but globally, will need those specific components. Can we pick up those components and use them as our stepping stone when we start the first chip design? These are some of the things we discussed. At Wi-SUN we are using the standard for scale to pick up the right components so that we have very less chance of failure.

With Wi-SUN, we have an evolutionary view of this to improve increased data communication rates. We have a very compelling cybersecurity story right now. But with the advent of quantum computing, that’s going to catch up with how good cyber security is. So within IEEE802, we’ve developed the next generation of AES encryption. And it will be just a matter of time before that is deployed. But that will still be backward compatible with the devices that are available in the field now.

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