IEEE 802.15.4 Standard: a tutorial / primer

IEEE 802.15.4 is the standard which is the basis for many low power wireless connectivity solutions including Zigbee, 6LoWPAN, Thread and many more.

IEEE 802.15.4 Includes:
IEEE 802.15.4     6LoWPAN     Thread    

IEEE 802.15.4 is a standard that was developed to provide a framework and the lower layers in the OSI model for low cost, low power wireless connectivity networks.

IEEE 802.15.4 provides provides the MAC and PHY layers, leaving the upper layers to be developed for specific higher later standards like Thread, Zigbee, 6LoWPAN and many others.

As a result, IEEE 802.15.4 does not take the limelight in the way that other standards might, but nevertheless it forms the basis for a large number of standards and accordingly it ifs far more widely deployed than may be apparent at first sight.

Low power is one of the key elements of 802.15.4 as it is used in many areas where remote sensors need to operate on battery power, possibly for years without attention.

IEEE 802.15.4 basics

The IEEE 802.15.4 standard is aimed at providing the essential lower network layers for a wireless personal area network, WPAN. The chief requirements are low-cost, low-speed ubiquitous communication between devices.

IEEE 802.15.4 does not aim to compete with the more commonly used end user-oriented systems such as IEEE 802.11 where costs are not as critical and higher speeds are demanded and power may not be quite as critical. Instead, IEEE 802.15.4 provides for very low cost communication of nearby devices with little to no underlying infrastructure.

The concept of IEEE 802.15.4 is to provide communications over distances up to about 10 metres and with maximum transfer data rates of 250 kbps. Anticipating that cost reduction will require highly embedded device solutions, the overall concept of IEEE 802.15.4 has been devised to accommodate this.

IEEE 802.15.4 standard

The IEEE 802.15.4 standard has undergone a number of releases. In addition to this there are a number of variants of the IEEE 802.15.4 standard to cater for different forms of physical layer, etc. These are summarised below in the table.

IEEE 802.15.4 Standard Summary
IEEE 802.15.4 Version Details and comments
IEEE 802.15.4 - 2003 This was the initial release of the IEEE 802.15.4 standard. It provided for two different PHYs - one for the lower frequency bands of 868 and 915 MHz, and the other for 2.4 GHz.
IEEE 802.15.4 - 2006 This 2006 release of the IEEE 802.15.4 standard provided for an increase in the data rate achievable on the lower frequency bands. This release of the standard updated the PHY for 868 and 915 MHz. It also defined four new modulation schemes that could be used - three for the lower frequency bands, and one for 2.4 GHz.
IEEE 802.15.4a This version of the IEEE 802.15.4 standard defined two new PHYs. One used UWB technology and the other provided for using chirp spread spectrum at 2.4 GHz.
IEEE 802.15.4c Updates for 2.4 GHz, 868 MHz and 915 MHz, UWB and the China 779-787 MHz band.
IEEE 802.15.4d 2.4 GHz, 868 MHz, 915 MHz and Japanese 950 - 956 MHz band.
IEEE 802.15.4e This release defines MAC enhancements to IEEE 802.15.4 in support of the ISA SP100.11a application.
IEEE 802.15.4f This will define new PHYs for UWB, 2.4 GHz band and also 433 MHz
IEEE 802.15.4g This will define new PHYs for smart neighbourhood networks. These may include applications such as smart grid applications for the energy industry. It may include the 902 - 928 MHz band.

Although new versions of the standard are available for use by any of the higher layer standards, Zigbee still uses the initial 2003 release of the IEEE 802.15.4 standard.

IEEE 802.15.4 applications

The IEEE 802.15.4 technology is used for a variety of different higher layer standards. In this way the basic physical and MAC layers are already defined, allowing the higher layers to be provided by individual system in use.

IEEE 802.15.4 Derived Standards
Application or system Description of the IEEE 802.15.4 application or system
Zigbee Zigbee is supported by the Zigbee Alliance and provides the higher levels required for low powered radio system for control applications including lighting, heating and many other applications.
Wireless HART WirelessHART is an open-standard wireless networking technology that has been developed by HART Communication Foundation for use in the 2.4 GHz ISM band. The system uses IEEE802.15.4 for the lower layers and provides a time synchronized, self-organizing, and self-healing mesh architecture.
RF4CE RF4CE, Radio Frequency for Consumer Electronics has amalgamated with the Zigbee alliance and aims to provide low power radio controls for audio visual applications, mainly for domestic applications such as set to boxes, televisions and the like. It promises enhanced communication and facilities when compared to existing controls.
MiWi MiWi and the accompanying MiWi P2P systems are designed by Microchip Technology. They are designed for low data transmission rates and short distance, low cost networks and they are aimed at applications including industrial monitoring and control, home and building automation, remote control and automated meter reading.
ISA100.11a This standard has been developed by ISA as an open-standard wireless networking technology and is it described as a wireless system for industrial automation including process control and other related applications.
6LoWPAN This rather unusual name is an acronym for "IPv6 over Low power Wireless Personal Area Networks" It is a system that uses the basic IEEE 802.15.4, but using packet data in the form of Ipv6.

While the IEEE 802.15.4 standard may not be as well known as some of the higher level standards and systems such as Zigbee that use IEEE 802.15.4 technology as the underpinning lower levels system, it is nevertheless very important. It spans a variety of different systems, and as such provides a new approach - providing only the lower layers, and allowing other systems to provide the higher layers which are tailored for the relevant application.

IEEE 802.15.4 frequencies and frequency bands

The IEEE 802.15.4 frequency bands align with the licence free radio bands that are available around the globe. Of the bands available, the 2.4 GHz (2 400 MHz) band is the most widely used in view of the fact that it is available globally and this brings many economies of scale.

IEEE 802.15.4 RF Channel Details
Frequency band (MHz) Channels available Throughput available (kbps) Region use allowable
868 - 868.6 1 20 Europe
902 - 928 10 (2003 rel)
30 (2006 rel)
30 USA
2 400 16 250 Global

With new allocations arising as a result of issues such as the digital dividend and other countries adopting and using IEEE 802.15.4, other frequencies and bands are being considered. These include: 314-316 MHz, 430-434 MHz, and 779-787 MHz frequency bands in China and the 950 MHz-956 MHz band in Japan. Other frequencies are also being considered for UWB variants of IEEE 802.15.4.

IEEE 802.15.4 modulation formats

There were two different modulation schemes defined for IEEE 802.15.4 in the original standard released in 2003. Both these air interface or radio interface configurations are based on direct sequence spread spectrum, DSSS techniques. The one for the lower frequency bands provides a lower data rate in view if the smaller channel width, whereas the format used at 2.4 GHz enables data to be transferred at rates up to 250 kbps.

The 2006 release of the 802.15.4 standard upgraded an number of areas of the air interface and the modulation schemes. There were four different physical layers that were defined. Three used the DSS approach using either binary or offset quadrature phase shift keying, BPSK and OQPSK. An optional physical layer approach was defined using amplitude sift keying, ASK.

IEEE 802.15.4 MAC overview

The purpose of the IEEE 802.15.4 MAC layer is to provide an interface between the PHY or physical layer and the application layer. The as IEEE 802.15.4 does not specify an application layer, this is generally an application system such as Zigbee, RF4CE, MiWi, etc.

The IEEE 802.15.4 MAC provides the interface to the application layer using two elements:

  • MAC Management Service:   This is called the MAC Layer Management Entity, MLME. It provides the service interfaces through which layer management functions may be called or accessed. The IEEE 802.15.4 MAC MLME is also responsible for controlling a database of objects for the MAC layer. This database is referred to as the MAC layer PAN information base or PIB. The MLME also has access to MCPS services for data transport activities.
  • MAC Data Service:   This si called the MAC Common Port Layer, MCPS. This entity within the IEEE 802.15.4 MAC provides data transport services between the peer MACs.

IEEE 802.15.4 network topologies

There are two main forms of network topology that can be used within IEEE 802.15.4. These network topologies may be used for different applications and offer different advantages.

The two IEEE 802.15.4 network topologies are:

  • Star topology:   As the name implies the start format for an IEEE 802.15.4 network topology has one central node called the PAN coordinator with which all other nodes communicate.
  • Peer to Peer network topology:   In this form of network topology, there is still what is termed a PAN coordinator, but communications may also take place between different nodes and not necessarily via the coordinator.

It is worth defining the different types of devices that can exist in a network. There are three types:

  • FFD:   Full Function Device - a node that has full levels of functionality. It can be used for sending and receiving data, but it can also route data from other nodes.
  • RFD :   Reduced Function Device - a device that has a reduced level of functionality. Typically it is an end node which may be typically a sensor or switch. RFDs can only talk to FFDs as they contain no routing functionality. Thee devices can be very low power devices because they do not need to route other traffic and they can be put into a sleep mode when they are not in use.

    These RFDs are often known as child devices as they need other parent devices with which to communicate.
  • Coordinator:   This is the node that controls the IEEE 802.15.4 network. This is a special form of FFD. In addition to the normal FFD functions it also sets the IEEE 802.15.4 network up and acts as the coordinator or manager of the network.

These definitions were originally generated for use in Zigbee, but their use has now been introduced with IEEE 802.15.4 network terminology.

IEEE 802.15.4 star topology

In the star topology, all the different nodes are required to talk only to the central PAN coordinator. Even if the nodes are FFDs and are within range of each other, in a star network topology, they are only allowed to communicate with the coordinator node.

Having a star network topology does limit the overall distances that can be covered. It is limited to one hop.

IEEE 802.15.4 peer to peer topology

A peer to peer, or p2p network topology provides a number of advantages over a star network topology. In addition to communication with the network coordinator, devices are also able to communicate with each other. FFDs are able to route data, while the RFDs are only able to provide simple communication.

The fact that data can be routed via FFD nodes means that the network coverage can be increased. Not only can overall distances be increased, but nodes masked from the main network coordinator can route their data via another FFD node that it may be able to communicate with.

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