IoT or the Internet of Things is a massive field that connects literally everybody, everywhere. Well… almost. If you’re living deep in the Amazon rainforest, beneath the canopy that literally blocks out the sun from ever hitting the forest floor, wear almost nothing and carry nothing that hasn’t been made on site, you’re probably part of the IoT. Indeed, just by reading this article on this screen makes you part of it.
The IoT has lots of definitions in print around the web. In fact, if you simply type IoT into Google, it brings more than 34 million results, as of December, 2017. Cisco says it’s “connecting everything that drives positive business results.” In fact, it’s one heck of a lot more than that.
Perhaps a fairly standard definition of the IoT is that it is a network of physical devices, which included vehicles, home appliances such as stoves, fridges and TVs, as well as an ever widening range of things that are embedded with sensors, software, electronics, actuators all able to network and connect to exchange data. Everything has its own unique identity because of its own embedded computing system, but at the same time is able to interact and operate with other parts of the infrastructure it is connected to.
This means that the things that are part of the IoT are able to be sensed and controlled remotely across the already existing Internet, making it possible for these items to be integrated directly into computer-based systems already in place. The expected result is an increase in efficiency, accuracy and economic benefits. A desired benefit is decreased human intervention, but there are many questions about how successful the latter has been, due to the increase, real or perceived, in potential targets for hackers.
Jacob Morgan, a Forbes contributor said in defining the Internet of Things, “… this is the concept of basically connecting any device with an on and off switch to the Internet (and/or to each other). This includes … cellphones, coffee makers, washing machines, headphones, lamps, wearable devices and almost anything else you can think of. This also applies to components of machines, for example a jet engine of an airplane or the drill of an oil rig… if it has an on and off switch then chances are it can be a part of the IoT.”
In other words, if it runs on electricity, no matter where it is, it can now be manufactured with the ability to connect to the internet. This has already raised some serious questions about privacy. Just recently, a company that makes wi-fi connected adult toys designed to be controlled via a smartphone over a home network were in the hot seat for collecting data on how their devices were being used!
I quite like The way Margaret Rouse concisely defines Internet of Things in her article on the subject: “The Internet of Things (IoT) is a system of interrelated computing devices, mechanical and digital machines, objects, animals or people that are provided with unique identifiers and the ability to transfer data over a network without requiring human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction. “
She goes on to explain that a thing can be anything from your pet with an implanted biochip transponder to a person with an implanted heart monitor (those are amazing), a van like mine with sensors that warn me about low pressure in one of my tires, or just about anything else, whether natural (like you or you pet) or man-made (like my van or your smart TV) that can be assigned an IP address and somehow connected to a network with the ability to transfer data.
Why the IoT?
The driving force behind all this, of course, is the need for data. The more data that can be gathered and accurately catalogued and analyzed, the better we are able to make decisions. The better we are able to make decisions, the better off (in theory) we all are.
The challenge is the way we have traditionally created and handled information. It has almost exclusively depended on human input. Everything for most of the history of the Internet has been collected, typed in, saved, scanned or photographed by humans.
The issue with this is that it’s relatively slow – humans tend to get tired, lack time and make mistakes, which means the information we humans capture isn’t the best it can be. The beauty of the IoT is that it lets machines, with no emotions, illnesses, short attention spans or other distractions collect and count all the data about everyTHING without any input or interference from us. We can then know exactly when something needed to be replace, repaired or recalled. We could even track consumables like our bread and eggs to determine their freshness without ever having to check a package, ourselves.
Here’s an example from my own office about just one of the benefits of the IoT. I used to have to remember to keep track of how much ink or toner the printer was using, in order to make sure I had some on hand for when I suddenly ran out. Today, my printer not only tells me long before I run out, but it will actually order it for me and it will be delivered to my door, automatically, in plenty of time. I don’t need to worry about remembering to check it, any more, which is a good thing, because with all the other things I must remember, it’s easy to forget.
But this is just a tiny fraction of the possibilities opened up in the evolution of the IoT. Now your house can learn your habits on a daily, monthly, weekly and even yearly level, controlling everything from your morning cup of coffee being waiting for you, the level of your lights, your heat and your security system. Your car can start and warm itself up for you on cold winter mornings, list your itinerary for you as you drive to work and even help you choose a gift for that special someone it just reminded you has a birthday coming up.
The Internet of Things and the Cloud
To further describe the IoT, perhaps in the most basic way possible, it is a system of sensors and machines connected to one another via cloud-based applications. Therein lies the key to making it all work – cloud-based computing. We will talk about that in greater detail in a moment.
But there’s more. There’s a race going on that everyone is benefiting from. Have you noticed how the cost of using your smartphone has not increased in step with inflation, yet you are able to do more and more, call more areas and use more data, without big increases in cost? It really is amazing, if you think about it, and that’s only one of the benefits of what is going on.
While IoT can connect and monitor almost anything in your home, there is a much broader picture. The IoT can also be applied to such things as transportation networks, including smart cities, helping to reduce spending and other waste and improve efficiency for everything from energy to water use.
A beautiful little loop and infographic has been created on ceros.com with the message, “The thing is not really the thing. To reveal the real value of the Internet of Things, go beyond connected devices.”
Examples today of IoT use in industry include manufacturing, energy, transportation, water, smart cities, government, education, retail, healthcare, information and financial services. Companies like Cisco, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, Google and many, many more are “in.” But also communications companies like Bell, AT&T and Rogers, the traditional communications giants are “in the game.”
With the advent of cloud-based computing, we now have the opportunity to have applications that we can access to, interpret and transmit the data from all these sensors and communicate and analyze that same data for us, no matter where on the planet we are. Simply put, the cloud makes it possible for any app to go to work for us, anytime and anywhere.
What do you think the implications are from this for the communications industry? In a word: Massive.
Perhaps you’ve heard of them. If not, you will. NB-IoT (NarrowBand-Internet of Things), LoRa, Sigfox and 5G wireless technologies. With a growing demand that is already in the tens of billions for connections as more and more smart devices come online in addition to those already on, the demand for wireless connections is simply staggering. Let’s quickly look at these.
NB-IoT is the 3GGP (the global mobile broadband standard) answer for connecting low data rate devices to mobile networks. According to a news release by 3GGP on September 15, 2017, “A major milestone was achieved this week in RAN (Plenary meeting #69) with the decision to standardize NB-IOT, a new narrowband radio technology to address the requirements of the Internet of Things (IoT). “ In other words, work still needs to be done…
One of the goals of this technology is to provide a viable replacement for GSM channels. The good news is, that work is being done.
LoRa is a trademarked modulation format developed by Semtech. It is described as an “FM chirp,” which is very useful for communication across a wide area. Also called LoRaWAN (and also trademarked by Semtech, itself a trademarked name, is an ultra long-range, low-power wireless networking technology, and a major player in the evolution of the IoT.
LoRa uses the unlicensed spectrum. That equates to a 1% duty cycle in Europe, which puts limits on the volume and the frequency of traffic. In addition, it limits the ability of the base station to control the network and send traffic down.
As already mentioned, LoRa is Semtech’s proprietary modulation system. So far, they are the only LoRa chipset manufacturer or license holder.
Non-mobile operator customers can use LoRan to implement solutions. However, LoRa networks tend to interfere when more than one is operated in a single area.
LoRa is suitable for a range of 2 to 5km in an urban area, and up to 15km in a suburban area.
Sigfox is a French wireless network company, founded in 2009. They build wireless networks for connection so such low-energy things as water meters, smart watches and refrigerators, which need to be on all the time while sending small amounts of data. They currently have networks running in 19 countries representing an area of more than 1.2 million square kilometers, including San Francisco, which puts it as the leader in its niche. They are planning to expand their US coverage to 100 cities.
Their proprietary technology used the ISM (Industrial, Scientific and Medical) band (868MHz in Europe and 902MHz in the US). Theirs is a wide-ranging signal that is able to pass freely through solid objects. it is called an ultra-narrow band and has very low energy requirements. Rather than LoRaWAN, this one is termed “LPWAN (Low-Power Wide-Area Network)” or simply “LPWA.”
Sigfox requires a mobile operator to carry the traffic it generates. The signal can easily cover a very wide area and is suitable for reaching underground objects (such as water meters).
The payload is very low – up to 140 uplink messages per day, of no more than 12 bytes each (not including the header and transmission information), plus up to 4 downlink messages per day, with a maximum payload of 8 Bytes.
Sigfox is suitable for 3 to 10km in an urban area, and 30 to 50km in a rural area. In fact, they can send messages up to 1000km with a single base station. Each base station has the capacity to handle up to 1 million IoT devices.
A huge advantage of Sigfox is cost. It greatly reduces the cost and energy consumption necessary for securely connecting such physical things as mentioned to the Cloud. It is compatible with Bluetooth, GPS, 2G, 3G, 4G and Wi-fi. That brings us to the next one:
Coming soon to the world all around you is 5G. 3GPP planned to focus the the second half of 2017 on their work toward Release 15, to deliver the first set of 5G standards. We are now in December of 2017 and waiting for their next update on the subject. They do have a nice infographic showing their timeline for Release 15.
5G is the next on the list as a connectivity option. You might well ask why any IoT device would need the 10GBps bandwidth, and the answer, of course, it that they wouldn’t. What they will need is somewhere to connect. The grown that has been predicted, probably conservatively, is somewhere around 50 billion devices, sensors and actuators by 2020. 5G is key to providing the necessary quantity of connectivity in the exploding IoT.
The IoT continues to experience explosive growth, showing no signs of slowing down or even of levelling out. As new appliances, gadgets, equipment, things enter the system, there will be an ever-increasing need for connectivity. New IoT companies are coming online as new discoveries and technologies appear.
It is unlikely, at least in the visible future, that any of the existing technology, such as NB-IoT, Sigfox and LoRA will fade away, even with the addition of 5G. They will likely coexist for a long time, at least until there is enough new technology to keep up with the growing demand.
The bottom line is, love it or hate it (or fear it), the IoT is here to stay, and its future looks very bright.
Jean-Christophe Huc (Jay C)