Does DECT-NR Have The Commercial Legs For 5G And Beyond?

October 29, 2021

Written by Alex Lawrence
CATEGORY: Exclusives

The ITU recently recognised ETSI’s new standard for DECT as part of 5G’s IMT-2020 technology standards. What should we make of this?

Most people are familiar with DECT as an old standard for managing voice calls over cordless phones in the home. However, DECT-2020 NR has a number of features that make it potentially an attractive option for use in household or office IoT environments:

  • The standard is designed to operate in a mesh topology and to pair simply with other devices. This would make adding, removing or moving devices easy for the end-user, provided there is one gateway.
  • It operates in license-exempt 1.9GHz spectrum globally, which keeps costs down by limiting the number of antennas needed.
  • It is a low-power option compared to many wireless technologies, which would make support for low-cost sensors with small batteries relatively straightforward.

With a usable range between devices typically expected to be 40 to 50 metres indoors, and more outside, it demands either a relatively dense network (for example in a large factory) or a small area (such as a house) in order to operate successfully. The more devices within that range, the more resilient the mesh will be in the face of device failures. The ITU sees the DECT-NR standard as a method to deliver the URLLC or enhanced Machine-Type Communications (eMTC) elements of the 5G vision.

While this looks appealing compared to cellular for some applications, it is liable to face a challenge from WiFi, and in particular WiFi 6. Like DECT-NR, it is capable of operating mesh topologies; it is a familiar technology to many in IT regardless of industry, providing confidence in how to secure and manage it; and it also functions to supply regular Wi-Fi coverage for users’ laptops or phones. Because of WiFi 6’s operation in higher frequencies than DECT, it doesn’t deliver quite the same range – more like 30 metres indoors. An additional challenge is that there are also other established unlicensed low-power mesh-capable standards in the IoT market such as Bluetooth, Zigbee and Z-wave, making DECT-NR a new entrant in a crowded market.

Behind the technology itself, DECT-NR has received considerable momentum from quite a small number of companies, prominent among them the Finnish Wirepas. This relatively young company appears to have clients licensing their software and an active developer portal, and recently announced a  $10 million round of financing.

Meanwhile, the DECT Forum  – which Wirepas is not a member of – includes companies such as Verizon, Cisco, NEC, Panasonic, Huawei, Mitel and many others. Their organisation includes a working group on “DECT-5G Business”. While little has been publicly released by the Forum on this topic, it is not hard to imagine some of these large companies eyeing the opportunity for DECT to play a part in 5G speculatively.

With the predicted growth in IoT solutions it would be surprising if DECT-NR cannot find a unique niche and role to fulfil, potentially leveraging its unique history as a method of voice communication. However, its main advantage so far seems to be the ITU’s placement of DECT-NR within the 5G family of technologies.

According to this 2019 white paper, this could be a significant boost for enterprises. “DECT-5G [as it was then called] will allow industries a safe way to explore and prove local area, mission critical, IoT services, e.g., in eHealth and manufacturing (Industry 4.0), whilst ensuring full interoperability with 3GPP 5G infrastructure. DECT-5G offers a route for such industries to deploy 5G at lower risk, retaining core business assets under their own full control, thereby accelerating early investments, speeding up their learning curves,” the document reads.

In other words, DECT offers enterprises the opportunity for 5G “training wheels” in IoT and private networking, while offering a relatively straightforward method for telcos to deliver local URLLC or eMTC services in a mesh topology without having to purchase further spectrum. Backing from the telecoms community and their deep pockets may encourage the development of an IoT ecosystem around DECT-NR.

However, the next twelve months will see marked progress on 3GPP Release 17 and package approval for Release 18, which also aim to address delivery on the promise of URLLC and eMTC from a “wireless” standpoint.

In the longer term, as we look towards 6G and beyond, one emerging view is that we should consider the network a software platform to unify many different access technologies, in which case DECT-NR would simply be one more for such a system to coordinate. DECT has had a quiet but continuing presence for decades because it does some things well and straightforwardly, and it is credible to believe that its use in IoT will last for the same reasons.

In many ways DECT-NR appears to be an elegant technology solution for several IoT demands. Time will tell whether the commercial impetus can build to bring this out beyond a niche solution.  

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