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Dialog enters low-power wireless market

Posted: 15 Sep 2011 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:DECT ULE? automation system? Internet? low-power wireless?

Although not considered as the company's strongest suit, Dialog Semiconductor plc has launched what it touts as the world's first line of IC-based devices interoperable with Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications (DECT) Ultra Low Energy (ULE). Two questions arise from this: why DECT ULE? Why now?

DECT ULE is a LAN technology for wireless low-power applications within a 300m range that prolongs longevity for battery-powered consumer equipment including burglar and smoke alarms, doorbells and others.

While accepted by ITU-T and expected to become an ETSI standard by the end of the year, DECT ULE is seemingly on its way out, and perhaps, a little late. Since the last decade, many companies have shoved various incompatible low-power wireless technologies at the industry. Competing low-power wireless technology standards also dominate the market such as Bluetooth, ZigBee and Z-Wave.

Now, Dialog is joining the fray that also includes NXP Semiconductors, Texas Instruments and Freescale, companies that have been in the market considerably longer. The enterprise hopes to go after the wireless chip market with self-configuring wireless sensor network devices used in remotely managed home automation, healthcare, security and energy monitoring consumer applications.

No one but Dialog has launched any DECT ULE-based devices. What are Dialog's chances to win in this wireless market? What pushed Dialog to engage itself in the 'Internet of Things?' After all, connectivity was never Dialog's core business until the company bought SiTel Semiconductor earlier this year.

It is far from clear if DECT ULE can catch up with the low-power energy wireless technology products that have been in the market for a while in certain segments. This becomes a high-stakes game for Dialog because leading chip companies see short-range wireless devices as one of the fastest growing segments of the market.

IMS Research's senior market analyst Lisa Arrowsmith, for example, pegs growth in "the residential automation and lighting segment" at about 30 percent CAGR from 2009 to 2015, with over 200 million ICs shipped for this application.

Internet connected devices
To be clear, there is nothing new about the concept of remotely managed home automation and security. It has been talked about for so many decades. However, the emergence of IP-based devices and the ubiquity of Internet-connected devices like smartphones, tablets and PCs have revolutionized the market.

When asked why DECT ULE, Dialog CEO Jalal Bagherli stated, "The main thing for me was it was low energy [Dialog's data-only or data and audio wireless sensor nodes can run for up to 10 years on a single AAA battery]. It's not on all the time. But more importantly, this is compatible with the Internet."

DECT ULE claims to offer 'native' Internet support through light data-service support, while other low-energy wireless technologies do not.

Residential automation systems that were usually high-end and whole-home systems requiring specialist installation companies are now becoming increasingly 'modular,' according to Arrowsmith. IP-based devices drive modularity. Once they're ubiquitous, it's much easier for consumer to use their own smartphones to control IP-based devices at homeremotelyover the Internet.

Critical to this scenario is the installation of a DECT base-station at home. That can be an Internet Access Device (IAD) such a DSL or cable modem featuring a DECT chip, or a WiFi router integrated with a DECT chip.

As landline-based phones are viewed increasingly 'irrelevant' to consumers who depend on their mobile phones for communication, gaining popularity in Europe is the use of an IAD with DECT chip for VoIP phone, according to Jos van der Loop, product marketing at Dialog. The company is now working on a reference design for such a system with Broadcom, he added.

Backward compatibility
DECT ULE is backward-compatible with DECT, although the DECT chip inside the IAD will require a software upgrade. DECT ULT builds on the mature DECT technology with proven range and simple plug-and-play connections, while running in the world interference-free spectrum. Dialog is relying on consumers' familiarity with DECT and its perceived ease of use.

However, for security or personal applications that may require voice communication (a fallen invalid talking to a paramedic trying to unlock a door or directly talking to a doctor via voice), Dialog's CEO believes DECT has a clear edge over ZigBee, Z-Wave or Bluetooth. Bagherli stressed the simplicity of the DECT ULE network. Its point-to-point tree topology is easier for a consumer to configure than mesh-network solutions used by certain competing wireless technologies.

Noting that DECT ULE "has the opportunity to penetrate the residential automation and consumer health monitoring markets for a number of reasons," Arrowsmith pointed out the significance of "consumer familiarity with DECT technology and its proven performance in residential environments (due to existing telephony systems), the existing installed base of DECT/CAT-iq gateways (which have the potential to be remotely upgraded to support DECT ULE devices) and the potential to also enable voice capability (which may be relevant to certain use-cases, e.g., some health applications)."

However, none of this anoints DECT ULE as a winner in the crowded low-power wireless market.

Arrowsmith continued, "As with any new technology, DECT ULE will need to be carefully marketed to gain acceptance. It will be a case of finding the appropriate segment of the market upon which to focus efforts."

She noted that Bluetooth low energy is set to be strong as a PAN technology for portable consumer health devices (due to integration of Bluetooth 4.0 in cellular handsets). ZigBee is gaining ground in the Home Area Network market through its inclusion in many smart meters and associated devices such as thermostats.

The good news for Dialog is that none of these markets, despite all the industry jabber, have really taken off yet. Just as NXP bet its future on Jennic, Dialog is counting on its SiTel acquisition to lead the company into the low-power wireless market.

Dialog's strategic move
Choosing a less-travelled road is always a gamble. However, this is a calculated move by Dialog. Rather than diving into Bluetooth or ZigBee markets crawling with established players, Dialog is assuming it's better off innovating new markets.

"We did not want to compete in the pure digital apps processor market," stated Bagherli.�Dialog's core business ranges from power management in mobility, internally developed low-power audio codec, driver ICs for next-generation mobile displays and 3D video conversion IC for mobile.

Missing from the company's portfolio was a technology that can connect high-volume consumer devices. The Sitel acquisition has allowed Dialog to chart 'a high growth path,' said Bagherli. SiTel is "culturally relatively close" and can create "a cross-selling opportunity." SiTel shared the same foundry as Dialog-TSMC and the two companies can share the CAD companies' design licensing expenses.

Bagherli understands the challenges ahead. In order to energize the low-power wireless home automation, security and energy markets, Dialog needs willing partners, "large guys who enable the industries," he noted. The key is to not only develop complete reference designs for DECT ULE-based devices (so that new customers can easily add applications) but also create software support.

Dialog is expected to register 15 percent growth in Q3 ending this month. "When the rest of the semiconductor world remains flat at best, we are confident that we will meet the guidance," said Bagherli.

- Junko Yoshida
??EE Times

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