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Navigating your wireless device through the certification maze

Building a wireless device is one thing, getting approval to sell it is quite another

Cellular Tower

Say you’ve got a new wireless device you’d like to bring to market. Maybe it’s a hand-held point-of-sale terminal that scans reward cards, maybe it’s a connected-car device. You might have engineered a fine product in your garage, but there’s a catch. By definition, M2M devices talk to each other wirelessly—and where there are radios, there are regulations. Before that device can hit the market, it needs to be certified.

“There are three approvals you need,” says Alan Swain, the vice-president of Wavefront, a Vancouver not-for-profit organization that helps Canadian wireless entrepreneurs bring their products to market.

The first is government. Anything that’s radiating energy has meet guidelines laid down by Industry Canada, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, or the European Community. What’s more, all radio-based wireless devices have to stay within the slice of the radio-frequency spectrum that the government has allotted them.

But getting the government’s sign-off for a wireless device is actually the easy part. More challenging is getting an M2M device certified by the carrier networks like Rogers or AT&T that it’s designed to speak with. The carriers’ concern is that your device will play nicely with its own networking equipment, behaving predictably and coexisting with the other consumer and industrial devices that share their cell towers and routers.

It’s an arduous test that every cellphone handset has to pass—AT&T’s specifications are more than 500 pages long—and despite the fact that M2M devices contact cell towers much less frequently, and exchange less data than smartphones, they’re held to the same standards. “You need to be as good as a cellphone,” says Swain.

To ease certification, the carriers banded together to form an industry group called PTCRB (the abbreviation doesn’t actually stand for anything), which offers certification across North American cellphone networks. A similar industry body in Europe called the GCF fulfills a similar role.

Once a device is PTCRB-certified, there’s still one more hurdle: Getting certified by individual carriers, from Rogers and Telus to T-Mobile and Verizon. For all their commonalities, each has infrastructure challenges: One carrier’s setup in Baltimore might be different then their setup in San Francisco. And while it’s not always strictly necessary to have a PTCRB-certified device approved by each carrier, it’s recommended.

If this sounds like a challenge, it is. But two factors help make it surmountable.

The first is the presence of established testing labs like Cetecom and 7Layers, which not only physically test, but guide entrepreneurs through the government, industry, and carrier requirements.

The second is the fact that most wireless devices aren’t built from scratch; many incorporate pre-built wireless modules that come mostly (but not entirely) pre-certified.

In fact, Swain often suggests that startups build their proof-of-concept devices on wireless gateways—ready-to-go, all-in-one wireless modems that sit in their own finished cases, talk to cell networks and come complete with small embedded computers inside, offering a pre-certified platform. However, these gateways are expensive, and, since they come in finished, sealed enclosures, they can’t be physically built into your product.

The next step for developers who are making their own hardware can plug in pre-built wireless modules, from a company like Sierra Wireless, into the product. Most of these self-contained modules are pre-certified, but they’ll need more certification since the fact that they’re built into a new device introduces uncertainty. Their performance might be affected by their power source, or proximity to other electronics, or the antenna attached to them.

For entrepreneurs who use a pre-certified module, Swain recommends setting aside a certification budget of $10,000 to $20,000; starting from scratch can push the testing costs well into the hundreds of thousands. It pays to avoid reinventing the wireless modem.

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