The latest IoT network builds on a power-grid foundation

Starfish is one of several low-power, wide-area systems looking for a global footprint

New networks being built with far less fanfare than cell towers will connect objects that in some cases have never been linked before, like street lights and traffic signals. The latest, called Starfish, is now debuting in Silicon Valley.

The many new dedicated networks for the Internet of Things aren't as fast as LTE or Wi-Fi, but they're designed to reach devices across an entire region with lower cost and power consumption. That's part of the equation that's supposed to make IoT work.

But as a new kind of network, these LPWA (low-power wide area) technologies are still a Wild West of competing vendors and approaches. Take your pick: Ingenu, SigFox, LoRaWAN, NB-LTE and more.

LPWANs can reach devices all around a city without as many base stations as cell networks need. That's partly because they don't need to carry heavy loads of traffic like video streams to and from smartphones. They're designed for machines that talk to machines rather than consumer devices with screens and full operating systems. Another consequence of this is power use: Devices like tiny sensors or remote devices can run longer on a battery with LPWAN.

Starfish, the new network, isn't really that new. It's based on the same technology and in some cases the same infrastructure that its maker, Silver Spring Networks, has been supplying to energy utilities and cities for about 10 years. The difference is that now Silver Spring is building out networks for anyone to use, or in some cases making a deal with a current customer to open up their networks to others, including traditional enterprises.

Networking something like city infrastructure can open the door to new uses that combine the power of different devices. For example, one city is using a Silver Spring network to make roadside cameras communicate with street lamps. When a camera senses a pedestrian walking by at night, it tells a street lamp nearby to turn on and light the sidewalk. It can do this without going through the Internet or a data center, Silver Spring CEO Michael Bell said.

One place where Silver Spring is deploying a new network is San Jose, California, where the city will use Starfish to connect some of its infrastructure but other users will be able to get on board, too. The network is set for completion early next year. It's one of seven cities in the first generation of Starfish systems, which also include Chicago and San Antonio in the U.S., Bristol and Glasgow in the U.K., Copenhagen, and Calcutta. The U.K. networks were already built out for use by the cities, Bell said.

Unlike some LPWANs, Starfish doesn't need towers at all. Instead, it's a mesh of devices all of which talk to each other, typically creating alternate paths in case one device in the mesh fails. Using a mesh also gives Starfish greater range without the need to reach each piece of infrastructure from a base station. Though the network has to have links to the greater Internet, each of those can can serve thousands of endpoints, Bell said.

In the LPWAN sweepstakes, Silver Spring is rare in that it promotes the speed of its network, which at 1.2Mbps (bits per second) is relatively fast. The company also says Starfish is more secure than rivals' systems, with certificate-based device authentication and radio-level encryption.

But the real battle is over building a thriving ecosystem to easily get lots of devices and applications onto the network. To that point, Starfish is based on an open standard, IEEE 802.15.4g, a long-range variant of the one ZigBee and Thread are based on. It uses IPv6 so every device can have its own unique IP address.

To promote the growth of its ecosystem, Silver Spring will offer both hardware and software development kits. It will also host a series of hackathons in San Jose, Calcutta and other cities.

Like other LPWAN backers, Silver Spring has a lofty goal without public delivery dates: It plans to expand Starfish coverage across the Americas, Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand "throughout 2016 and beyond." Who will achieve this kind of vast region-spanning infrastructure remains to be seen.

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