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The IoT: is it the real thing?

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UNTIL recently the hottest topic was Big Data, now it appears to be the Internet of Things (IoT). Media driven hype, speculation, optimism, pessimism, and wild projections seem to rule.  So, is there an actual need and a real IoT market? Will it all operate over 5G? And will we run out of wireless spectrum when we have more than 50 billion things on line?  The answers have to be YES, NO and NO, and here are the reasons why.

The IoT is fundamental to realising sustainable societies.  Continually polishing and improving our old industries and technologies with inefficient reuse, repurposing and recycling is not enough.  That just puts off the ultimate day of reckoning.  We have to drastically reduce material and energy use while eradicating much of the distribution, supply and support costs.

We need to track materials from their point of extraction, through transport and refinement to processing and manufacture, on to the distributor, seller, buyer/user, support and maintenance, disposal, and finally, eco-friendly recycling.  Tagging, monitoring and communication every step of the journey is necessary in many cases with designers, producers and users engaged in a closed loop of outcome driven improvement.

A record of production and use protects against counterfeit products whilst facilitating recovery and reuse of parts.  The military already do this to maximise the number of working vehicles, aircraft and weapon systems, whilst the farming sector tracks and monitors animals.  Weather conditions, growth rates, pregnancy, milk production cycles are monitored so the food mix can be adapted.  Such practices are equally relevant to industry with materials, machines and facilities shared efficiently.

Failing healthcare system globally see individuals assuming responsibility for their own health, and not ‘doing what you like’ on the assumption that the health system will come to the rescue further down the line.  Here low cost sensors, automated diagnostics and self-help are key.  And it starts with bathroom scales, glucose, blood pressure, thermometers, blood flow and respiration testers augmented by wearable devices.

With every domestic and personal device communicating and contributing data in close proximity the marshalling of data is key in empowering diagnostic engines. Orchestration between individual, doctor and hospital extends this to hospital instrumentation and/or the doctors office and totally changes the nature of patient records. We might therefore anticipate the prime responsibility and ownership migrating to the individual and away from doctor and hospital.

All this represents a very small percentage of the IoT future and we now include just two more exemplar sectors obviously in need of this technology – logistics and vehicles!  Tagging sea going pallets, containers, trucks would save trillions of dollars a year in efficiency and losses, whilst cars, trucks and busses also benefit greatly.  It is almost impossible to engineer 3.4,5G into containers, but short hop container to container links with a final hop for aggregation ship to shore can be engineered.  Similarly, the notion that every road going vehicle will us 5G is clearly a nonsense!

The automotive industry is progressively equipping vehicles with more intelligence and automated functionality.  GPS, road and traffic condition updates have been high on their list along with cruise control, engine and climate monitoring, instrumentation, entertainment, voice control and hands free mobile phone connections. We can also add parking sensors, cameras, radar, collision avoidance, automated braking, park assist et al.  Short range (direct) car-to-car communication also appears to be evolving rapidly.

Imagine pulling in for gas and our vehicle OS and apps being automatically upgraded along with the latest maps and traffic information, and perhaps entertainment content for the younger members of the family, whist the engine reports performance data.  But for the driver of the vehicle the single biggest benefit might be the latest road and freeway traffic data relayed directly car-to-car in real time giving incident data/alternate routing advice.

Could all this and much more be serviced by 5G?  No.  The dominant mode has to be short range very low power within bathroom, hospital, manufacturing plant, farm, warehouse and vehicle to vehicle.  Today 3 and 4G transport less than 5% of the internet traffic with over 50% on WiFi and the rest of fixed lines. These ratios are not going to improve for 3, 4 and 5G with the IoT because of their fundamental limitations as a technology including energy demands.

Today the internet of seven billion devices consumes about 10% of the energy generated.  We cannot afford more than 50 billion things on line using today’s technology, or indeed 5G.  FTTH/FTTP and very short range low power wireless links are the only viable route to a sustainable future.  You just can’t beat the laws of physics.

Peter Cochrane is an IT consultant and former chief technology officer at BT. He is chairing a panel on the digital finance function at the CFO Agenda on 28 June

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