SAN JOSE, Calif. – Silver Spring Networks joined the increasingly crowded race to provide a wide-area wireless network for the Internet of Things. Starfish is a public version of the 900 MHz network the company developed initially for smart utility meters.
Nearly a dozen contenderss are trying to fill a need for long distance networks that cut the cost and power consumption of today’s cellular machine-to-machine networks. Silver Spring believes it can offer at relatively low cost significantly better throughput and latency than current leading 900 MHz competitors in the space, Sigfox and the LoRa Alliance.
The latest version of the Silver Spring network is capable of data rates up to 1.2 Mbits/second and 10-50 millisecond latency per hop, typically limited to three hops. It claims point-to-point reach up to 50 miles.
Aapo Markkanen, an analyst following the sector for market watcher Machina Research expressed skepticism about the company’s figures of merit for its 900 MHz network. “They may be able to achieve those data rates or that latency or that range separately, but in real life the performance of needs to be compromised significantly on all fronts,” he said.
At this stage, Silver Spring is not providing enough data on its costs and power consumption to adequately determine its likely impact, he said. The company’s attempt to offer a “platform-level solution stack as part of the launch sounds comparable to what Helium and Samsara are doing,” he added, pointing to two hot competing startups.
Public Starfish networks will initially be deployed in seven cities including San Jose where the company planned to officially announce its plans at city hall. Other cities preparing public Starfish networks include Chicago, San Antonio, Calcutta, Copenhagen, as well as Bristol and Glasgow in the UK.
The company is essentially starting from scratch in public IoT nets with proven technology. Silver Spring has deployed more than 22.3 million nodes using its 802.15.4g (Wi-SUN) radio and mesh network, however those devices are all on private networks, mainly in utilities.
Over the past two years the company has been expanding to use of its networks in smart city deployments for applications such as streetlights. Mike Bell, a former Apple and Intel executive pushed the company to roll out a public IoT network service when he joined as chief executive in late September.
“There was talk of Starfish when I arrived, but I kicked it into high gear,” said Bell in an interview with EE Times.
Bell had never heard of Silver Spring when a recruiter contacted him about the job while he was at Intel. “I realized this was the biggest IoT company no one had heard of, the possibilities are pretty big,” he said.
It’s still early days for Starfish. Bell was not prepared to release pricing for the network, details of its plans for hardware developer’s kits or a road map of cities where it plans deployments.
However, the company did announce it plans a free service called Haiku offering 5,000 16-byte messages per month, aimed primarily at customers of Sigfox. “Our service is so much better we can handle that for free where for others this is the best they can offer,” said Bell.
Before April, Silver Spring will release two hardware developer’s kits. One will serve nodes with a direct power source, the other is based on the company’s existing battery-powered node. The company also will offer a so-called IoT router that runs Linux and links its mesh networks to legacy Ethernet or cellular networks and a software developer’s kit.
The company plans hackathons early next year in most of its initial target cities to attract developers. Its software is based on an open source RTOS modified by Silver Spring. It supports a variety of protocols including Wi-SUN FAN, Zigbee, cellular, Ethernet, USB and serial as well as 6LoWPAN, UDP and TCP. It supports security standards including PKI and X.509 certificates.
The Starfish network is implemented in firmware on Silver Spring’s own SoC and an off-the-shelf 900 MHz radio chip. Bell said he is open to making the mesh technology available on SoCs from other companies.
Silver Spring has developed a 900 MHz network that meets security and reliability needs of utilities, Bell said. The company can seed public IoT users for relatively low capital costs.
The company went public in 2013 and is still struggling to establish a track record of profits. It its last fiscal year it lost $89 million on about $190 million in revenue, and in its most recent quarter it nearly broke even on almost $70 million in revenue. It has more than $120 million in net cash and no debt.
Rival Sigfox raised more than $90 million earlier this year to fund a U.S. national network. Another competitor, Ingenu, is closing an undisclosed funding round to finance similar efforts on its 2.4 GHz network.
Ultimately cellular and Wi-Fi networks are expected to dominate the wide-area IoT market with standards still in the works. However, some argue the 3GPPP celluar standards group has lost its way in pursuing IoT.
“I don’t believe cellular is the end-all and be-all,” said Bell. “Orange is rolling out a LoRa network across France I assume because they see IoT as mainly static devices and they don’t want to have every one of them ping a cell tower – and on our network you don’t pay the Qualcomm tax,” he said referring to the mobile chip vendor’s licensing program.
— Rick Merritt, Silicon Valley Bureau Chief, EE Times