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How global standards underpin the IoT

Man pointing to icons and the word standards

The IoT will be one of the planet's largest and most complex machines. And its economic impact will be huge. In a 2022 report, analyst McKinsey suggested the IoT’s value could be as much as $12.5 trillion by 2030[1]. But the IoT can only reach this size if all the components are built to global engineering standards.

Without standards, there’s no way to guarantee that parts of the network—potentially made by different companies and situated a long way from each other—will work in harmony.

Nordic has been an enthusiastic advocate for wireless standards for decades. The company realized that low-power wireless connectivity would be a big business from the beginning. Still, it also realized it would be much more significant if everyone worked to standards.

Mainstream adoption of wireless technology has consistently been greatly accelerated if customers can see it is internationally backed and there’s a healthy ecosystem of competing suppliers.

Moreover, standards adoption gives customers confidence that the technology will thrive and they are not subject to the whims of a single supplier. They are also reassured that a device compatible with a given standard will seamlessly interoperate with other devices built to the same standard from various suppliers.  

Reaching a consensus for the IoT

Apart from being the son of William the Conqueror, English 12th-century monarch King Henry I was known for his talent for administration and an early realization that standards were a good thing. At the time, the “yard,” a distance measure similar to the meter, was anything but consistent. Henry decided it needed defining and decreed it should be the distance from his nose to the thumb on his outstretched arm. While this was somewhat arbitrary, it was at least a definition everyone could agree upon.

That is what standards represent: a consensus among experts regarding the best way of measuring, defining, testing, or achieving something. The rules and regulations are written down and officially adopted so everyone knows exactly how everyone else will implement things. In the manufacturing sector, if everyone sticks to the standards, everything we make will work seamlessly together no matter who constructed it.

Why standards are a good thing for the IoT

Standards make sense today, but that wasn’t always the case. “When things don’t work as they should, it often means standards are absent,” says an ISO (International Organization for Standardization) spokesperson. The organization—a global standards group—could have been talking about the early railways in the U.K. Two rival engineers, George Stephenson and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, tried to impose their respective gauges (the distance between rails) on the countrywide network.

Stephenson chose 4 ft 8.5 in (1.44 meters) for his gauge based on the axle width of the horse-drawn carts of the day. Brunel chose 7 ft 0.25 in (2.14 meters), arguing it would lead to smoother and faster journeys. The result was that passengers and freight had to change trains whenever the two gauges met. In 1892, the U.K.’s rail authorities adopted Stephenson’s gauge as the standard and ripped up Brunel’s railways. It was a good move; by 1914, around 32,000 kilometers of 1.44-meter gauge track were used daily by rolling stock from 120 competing companies.

The ISO recently analyzed the impact of standards and came to three major conclusions:

  • Standards reduce the time needed to perform specific activities in the various business functions, decreasing waste, reducing procurement costs, and increasing productivity.
  • They served as the basis for innovating business processes, allowing companies to expand their suppliers’ network or to introduce and manage new products effectively. In other instances, standards helped mitigate the risk to companies of introducing new products onto national markets.
  • Standards have been used as the basis for developing new products, penetrating new markets (both domestic and export), supporting the market uptake of products, and even creating markets.

Getting things organized

Standards organizations come in all shapes and sizes. For example, the ISO was founded in 1947 to answer a fundamental question: “What's the best way of doing this?” Starting with the obvious things like weights and measures, the organization now administers over 24,750 standards covering all aspects of daily life.

In the wireless sector, bodies such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) develop, maintain, and administer specifications that detail exactly how wireless tech should be built. The IEEE, for example, produces a standard that details how wireless local area network (WLAN, also known as Wi-Fi) media access control (MAC) and physical layer (PHY) must be designed. The WLAN standard, IEEE 802.11, encompasses a suite of standards, including 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6), and is part of IEEE 802, a set of local area network (LAN) standards.

Another example of an important standards organization in the wireless IoT sector is the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP). The group was initially set up to define standards for 3G networks and is mapping out 5G and 6G standards today. These include those for cellular IoT specifications such as LTE-M and NB-IoT, which build on cellular networks as a foundation for massive IoT.

Nordic helps define standards for the IoT

Nordic is much more than just an IoT solutions company. Rather it is an active and enthusiastic participant in wireless IoT standards bodies. As far back as 2006, the company contributed core ultra-low power wireless design expertise to the Bluetooth Low Energy standard. Bluetooth LE subsequently became one of the fastest-growing wireless technologies in history. Today, Nordic’s nRF52 and nRF53 Series SoCs meet the requirements of the Bluetooth v5.3 specification. Similarly, the nRF9160 cellular IoT SiP complies with the 3GPP’s latest LTE-M and NB-IoT standards, and the nRF7002 complies with IEEE’s Wi-Fi 6 standard.

Nordic continues to play a key role in developing the open standards that underpin the IoT. In addition to being an associate member of the Bluetooth SIG, Nordic is a member of the ANT+ Alliance, Thread Group, Connectivity Standards Alliance, Wi-Fi Alliance, and GSMA. And our engineers have significant input into the specifications behind many of today’s IoT technologies. For example, Nordic has played a recent key role in the Matter specification. Matter brings order to the fragmentation of smart home tech. Thread and DECT NR+ are other important standards that Nordic is helping to develop and promote.

From the 12th century until the 21st, standards have ensured that the best engineering minds work towards the same objective, even if competing companies employ them and they live in different countries. That makes for rapid technological advances while ensuring end products are robust, reliable, and interoperable. The alternative approach leads to fragmentation, lack of innovation, and stalled progress.

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