Choosing the right wireless technology for your new IOT product

Various wireless technologies compete today to serve the burgeoning market for the Internet of Things (IoT), creating confusion and uncertainty in the mind of developers and end users, and slowing down market acceptance. The leading contenders include wide area networks (WAN) technologies:  LTE , SigFox, or LoRA which require service subscription, and local area networks (LAN) technologies: Zigbee, Thread, Z-Wave , Wi-Fi, proprietary RF, Bluetooth™ Classic and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE).

This blog focuses on the role of the various wireless technologies in the LAN applications. Although the examples given come from the  connected home market segment, the largest and most visible market segment today,  similar conclusions apply to industrial or commercial products.

                                   INTERNET TRAFFIC BY DEVICE TYPEvni-hyperconnectivity-wp_2


                 GLOBAL M2M CONNECTION GROWTH BY INDUSTRIESCisco_vni_global_traffic

*Other includes Agriculture, Construction, and Emergency Services.
Source: Cisco VNI Global IP Traffic Forecast, 2015–2020

There is no doubt that legacy technologies such as ZigBee, Z-Wave or proprietary RF  will continue to be deployed in the near future,  given the number of devices using these technologies available in big-box stores and promoted by major carriers like AT&T and Verizon in the USA. However, it is unlikely that many new products will be developed based on these technologies. ZigBee and Z-Wave  will be superseded by Thread,  an IP technology that is based like ZigBee on IEEE 802.15.4 standard , that benefits from the learning of ZigBee and addresses many of its shortcomings,  including being more secure and resilient. Bluetooth low energy  is already displacing  other technologies such as ANT and proprietary RF  in devices running on coin cell.   With the addition of meshing and IP, the BLE applications could also extend well beyond wearables.

At GainSpan we are focusing our development on three wireless technologies, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth low energy and Thread, that will capture the largest share of the IOT connectivity market in Local Area Networks. These technologies are the only ones to offer at least one fundamental IOT element:  Internet protocol connectivity, which is the basis of the IOT , and smartphone connectivity for ease of use and commissioning, which is essential for IOT adoption.


In some cases the right choice is clear:

  • Only Wi-Fi can deliver the throughput required by applications such as video in video doorbell or video surveillance cameras. Similarly, Wi-Fi is gradually being adopted in music streaming applications displacing Bluetooth classic for the same reasons.
  • Bluetooth is the only  technology with a peak current that is low enough ( few mA)  to operate from a coin cell in applications such as wearables or tags.
  • If smartphone connectivity is required the choices are between Wi-Fi for longer range applications (e.g.  appliances)  and higher throughput and  Bluetooth low energy for extended battery life.

In typical sensor applications such as thermostats, smoke alarms or door locks,  the choice of the most appropriate technology is function of the selling proposition and the positioning of the products in the market:

  • Wi-Fi is the most mature, proven and secure technology, offering connectivity to smartphones and generally available infrastructure in homes, commercial buildings and cities (e.g. access points) with a long reach but a higher power consumption.
  • With better receiver sensitivity and strong meshing capabilities , Thread has the potential to extend the application reach beyond Wi-Fi range, with lower power consumption. It is a strong technical solution, but its market acceptance is still to be proven, despite the large numbers of Tier1 companies that have joined the Thread group
  • For short-range applications, Bluetooth low energy offers the longest battery life and the capability to operate from a coin cell battery.

Please let us know the reasons you chose one wireless technology over another in the development of your IOT products.

Concurrent Mode: Getting More Done with One Radio!

Most IoT devices in the market operate primarily in Wi-Fi station mode wherein they are associated to an Access Point (AP) and communicate to some kind of cloud. These devices sometimes also operate in Limited AP mode in certain cases such as during provisioning so that the smartphones/tablets can provide them with network credentials for the user’s AP.

GainSpan’s latest firmware release (ver. 5.2.1 GA and higher)  enables our modules to operate both as a Wi-Fi station and a Limited AP in a time-multiplexed manner giving the user the perception of concurrent Wi-Fi station and Limited AP mode operation. This patented networking mode is made possible by the dual core architecture of the GS2000 SoC along with the larger memory resources.

Applications for Concurrent mode include concurrent mode provisioning, uninterrupted field diagnostics and creating Personal Area Networks (PAN). Let’s examine these in detail below.

Verified Concurrent Mode Provisioning:

The most common provisioning technique used by IoT devices today is to come up in Limited AP mode and have the user enter their network credentials via a mobile App on a smartphone / tablet. Upon receiving the network credentials, the Wi-Fi radio in these IoT devices changes network modes from Limited AP to Wi-Fi station for the intended AP. This provides an easy Graphical User interface (GUI) for users to input their network credentials using their smartphone.

However, one major limitation of this method is that it does not confirm success. Provisioning could have failed for a number of reasons such as the user inputting incorrect network credentials, typos while entering credentials on a  smartphone/tablet (thanks, Autocorrect!), or the home AP being switched off.

GainSpan’s patented concurrent mode provisioning solves this problem. Here is how it works:

Fig 1: Concurrent Mode Provisioning
  • When invoked (typically by a push button), the GS2000 module starts the first networking interface in Limited AP mode. This could come up with WPA2-PSK security with a default per-device passphrase printed on the IoT device’s sticker (GainSpan recommends using WPA2-PSK security to avoid security holes in the provisioning process) or it could come up with Open security mode (i.e.,  no security)
  • The smartphone/tablet associates to this Limited AP mode network. Using an App on the smartphone/tablet, the user enters their home network’s credentials
  • Upon submitting these credentials, the GS2000 module launches the second networking interface and tries to associate to the home AP using the credentials just provided, while still maintaining the link to the smartphone / tablet
  • Once associated to the home AP, the GS2000 module does a ping verification test to the home AP to verify the association
  • This success (or failure) feedback is provided to users over the Limited AP interface from the GS2000 module to their smartphone/tablet

Typically, OEMs incorporate a BLE module in their design to provide this Limited AP-like link to the smartphone/tablet so that they can provide feedback to the user over BLE. This adds cost to the BOM and is an expensive solution given that the device will typically be provisioned only once during its life cycle.

GainSpan’s concurrent mode provisioning eliminates the need for a BLE chip and provides an easy, secure provisioning experience to the user.

Uninterrupted Field Diagnostics

To understand this use case, let’s consider a cloud-connected vending machine. This machine sends a lot of information to the cloud in terms of usage, stock levels, performance, logs, etc. This data is used by various parties such as store owner, maintenance technicians, stocking analysts and manufacturer to track its progress and help them take necessary actions as needed.

Fig 2: Uninterrupted Field Diagnostics

Uninterrupted Field Diagnostics

Consider a scenario where the vending machine sends an error code that prompts the owner to dispatch a service technician to the site for further diagnostics. The technician arrives and initiates the concurrent mode to establish a local Limited AP link between the vending machine and the tablet running the diagnostic software, while the vending machine still maintains cloud connectivity.

Diagnosing the product in the field without having to take it offline could be of profound importance to all parties involved in this use case. GainSpan’s concurrent mode makes this possible by providing two concurrent networking interfaces – namely a station interface for cloud connectivity and a Limited AP interface for a technician’s smartphone / tablet.

Creating a Personal Area Network (PAN):

Let’s consider a smart thermostat with a couple of battery- operated temperature sensors that can be placed in different rooms to better control the heating and cooling.

The thermostat unit being line powered operates in GainSpan’s concurrent mode and sets up two networking interfaces – the station interface to connect to the home AP for cloud connectivity and the Limited AP interface where the temperature sensors report the readings from different rooms.

Fig 3: Creating Personal Area Network (PAN)
  • Reduced BOM cost by eliminating the need for multiple radios to create a gateway in the thermostat unit
  • Eliminates the need for regulatory approvals on account of multiple radios in the system. Customers can leverage GainSpan’s modular approval certifications
  • Faster time to market as it is much easier to integrate one radio versus multiple radios into the system

GainSpan’s patented concurrent mode creates a new networking mode for IoT devices where they can act as a station and as Limited AP on two separate networking interfaces concurrently. When using GainSpan modules at both ends, concurrent mode enables battery-powered devices such as sensors to sleep longer and to maintain network connectivity without having to wake up periodically unless there is meaningful data to transmit. The Limited AP mode interface in concurrent mode supports up to 16 client devices with WPA2-PSK encryption. This unparalleled number of client device support gives OEM designers and embedded engineers the flexibility to architect their IoT device to meet all their technical needs while providing an easy development experience and designing a solution that is most cost effective.

How will you use GainSpan’s patented concurrent mode for your next IoT product? We’d love to hear from you.

Wireless Security: Which standard should I use for maximum security?

With the advent of wireless security, a variety of security standards have been developed and used. Each standard was developed to plug some vulnerability in its predecessor. As a result, a number of security options are available to the customer today. Some of the less secure and deprecated standards are also available to maintain backward compatibility with older Wi-Fi equipment.

When installing wireless networking equipment (Access Points or Routers) in their homes, customers should use the most secure standards for their home network. In this blog, l will introduce the various encryption standards available and recommend the most secure standard when setting up a home network.

Let’s take a quick look at the evolution of wireless encryption standards in chronological order. These standards are also listed from being least secure to most secure:

Wireless Security Blog

When setting up your home network, GainSpan recommends that you use WPAv2 standard on your home networks and use a long passphrase. When using WPAv2 with a strong passphrase, chances are very slim of a hacker breaking into your home network.

Will you use WPAv2 on your home Access Point / Router to secure your home network from potential hackers?

Please let us know your comments.


Provisioning Made Easy!

One of the key challenges that ODMs have to contend with while developing IoT products is the ease of installation on the customer’s network. This process of associating an IoT product to a network is called Provisioning.

The challenge in Provisioning stems from the fact that most IoT devices do not have any input or output mechanism for customers to enter their home network credentials (SSID and Passphrase). As such, Wi-Fi silicon manufacturers provide some mechanism to provision the IoT device on the network.

At GainSpan, we provide a comprehensive suite of provisioning techniques for the ODMs to choose from depending upon the use case of their IoT product. Most people now prefer to use their smart phones and tablets for provisioning.

Let’s take a look at some of GainSpan’s provisioning mechanisms:

  • Patented Concurrent provisioning:
    • IoT device comes up in Limited AP mode (GainSpan recommends using WPA2 security in Limited AP mode)
    • Customers uses an App on their smartphone to send the provisioning credentials to the IoT device
    • The IoT device attempts to associate to the desired network
    • Upon successful or unsuccessful (in case of mistyped SSID or Passphrase) association, the device provides a feedback to the user
    • Eliminates the need for BLE device for provisioning
  • Patented Web provisioning
    • IoT device comes up in Limited AP mode (GainSpan recommends using WPA2 PSK security in Limited AP mode)
    • IoT device starts a secure web server and advertises provisioning as a service
    • Configuration data (SSID, Passphrase) is exchanged through RESTful API
    • Smartphone is used as an I/O device
  • Limited AP mode:
    • This is similar to web provisioning, except instead of hosting a web server on the device,the user uses a mobile App on their smart device to send the provisioning credentials
    • Smartphone is used as an I/O device
  • Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS)
    • User pushes a button on their home Access Point to put it in WPS mode
    • User invokes WPS mode on the device (typically via a push button)
    • The device and home Access Point exchange credentials and the device is provisioned on the network
    • Easy provisioning – as easy as just pushing a button 
  • Apple Wireless Accessory Control (WAC) protocol
    • Uses iOS framework to provisioning from an iOS device
    • No mobile App needed for provisioning
    • Uses iOS framework to provide success / failure status
    • Use your iOS device to send the home network credentials to the device
  • Group Provisioning
    • Facilitates provisioning a number of devices from the mobile App in one shot
    • Within the Mobile App, each IoT device shows up as an unprovisioned device
    • Customer enters the network credentials within the Mobile App once and then selects the number of IoT devices to provision
    • The App connects to each IoT device and provisions them serially

Which method would you use when designing your IoT product? We are keen to hear from you!

Smart and Smarter: Use our built-in security tools when designing connected home products

The advent of IoT devices in the connected home has provided increased convenience to consumers. However, it also leaves consumers vulnerable to cyber-attacks on account of poor or substandard security and design practices from ODMs designing IoT products for the connected home.

GainSpan takes pride in providing a comprehensive set of security tools for our customers. These include using industry standard encryption protocols such as TLS1.2 for end-to-end security of data transmission and over the air security using Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA2). We also support a comprehensive suite of EAP/PEAP methods for Enterprise networks that provides banking level security.

We offer a number of Application Development Kits (reference designs) for easy development of certain features such as video cameras, music streaming, provisioning IoT devices on the home network, etc. All these reference designs are intended to be used by the ODMs as a starting point to minimize their development effort and provide a fast time to market. ODMs typically make changes to these reference designs to adapt to their specific use case.

Security is a major concern in applications wherein the IoT device is physically accessible to a malicious party e.g. door bells, security cameras, thermostats, etc. GainSpan recommends that while designing such applications the ODMs make use of the security measures provided by GainSpan. These include:

  • Not using open networks while provisioning. GainSpan recommends that customers use a per device unique passphrase for the Limited AP network being created for provisioning using WPA2 security
  • Not sending network credentials in the clear text. This is highly discouraged as it easily gives network access to malicious parties
  • Erasing all the customer credentials and information while resetting the IoT device to factory default settings
  • Using industry standard TLS1.2 encryption for transmission of all data from the IoT device to the cloud and/or mobile devices. This prevents malicious parties to decrypt the data even if they are able to eavesdrop on the transmission
  • Updating the encryption keys periodically so as to prevent the risk of keys being accessed by malicious parties
  • Using digital certificates for verifying the server’s authenticity before performing firmware updates. This ensures that your IoT device is being updated by the intended server

The security measures highlighted above are available to all of GainSpan’s customers. We recommend that ODMs use all or most of these security measures that are applicable for their IoT end product.

CES in Las Vegas

CES 2016 in Vegas was a remarkable opportunity to meet many customers and prospects, showcase our wireless connectivity products and experience other electronics innovations in every walk of life. For the first time we exhibited in the Smart Home section of the Sands Expo (as opposed to the Meeting Place at the back of South Hall 2 the previous years), and that proved to be an excellent decision,  as many of our volume customers develop smart home and healthcare products.

We launched our first Bluetooth Smart (BLE) module that expands wireless solutions for connected products, complementing our Wi-Fi GS2000 family of modules. Wi-Fi and BLE modules are complementary in the Smart Home, healthcare and fitness and other IOT markets, both offering also smartphone connectivity:  Wi-Fi for higher bandwidth applications, such as battery powered doorbells, and applications requiring IP connectivity;  Bluetooth Smart for very low power consumption such as a smoke alarm or a door lock.

We also introduced new reference design and development platforms for smart doorbell applications featuring HD Video streaming and Full Duplex, Hi fidelity audio.  In addition, Gainspan demonstrated an exciting new reference design for HD Music applications.  The new HD Music Development platform streams Lossless Music files over Wi-Fi networks, delivering incredible audio quality for next generations of wireless speakers, soundbars and headphones.

From left: Rohit Bhola, Bernard Aboussouan and Patty Kamysz, with an acrylic display of GainSpan’s first BLE module, the GS780MIZ