As billions of Bluetooth-enabled mattresses, toothbrushes, dog collars, soccer balls—you name it—join the Internet of Things (IoT), the networks that bind them to smartphones, tablets and other devices inevitably will become crowded, leaving current Internet capacity inadequate to handle the influx. French Internet service provider Sigfox says the solution is to build a separate network specifically for “things.”
“The issue is that more connected things means more network traffic and increased demand for higher capacity in core networks,” explains Robert Ryan, chief innovation officer, BAS, Fujitsu North America. “In 2013 an estimated 10 billion devices were connected to the Internet. This number will likely reach 50 billion or more by 2020.” Ryan predicts the increased traffic from those devices and the additional data they will generate will have a disruptive effect on networks, data centers and smart connected products.
IoT connectivity company Sigfox wants to increase effective bandwidth by diverting IoT traffic from the Internet we use today to a special low-bandwidth cellular network. The 915 megahertz frequency network it is building is the same one used by cordless phones and baby monitors and, according to Sigfox, can support millions of IoT connections.
San Francisco will be the first U.S. city to deploy the Sigfox IoT network. This low-bandwidth approach also is also being rolled out in the UK, joining Sigfox networks in France, most of the Netherlands, Russia, and Spain. “In the end, it’s all about bandwidth and using technologies (like fiber-optic cable) that are established but not ubiquitously available stateside,” says George K. Thiruvathukal, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) member and professor of computer science at Loyola University Chicago.
Separation stunts growth?
Whether a separate IoT network is needed, however, is debatable. Suke Jawanda, chief marketing officer, Bluetooth SIG, says a distinct IoT network is unnecessary and counterproductive. “A separate network probably would prevent the IoT from becoming a reality because it would stunt interoperability.” Developing separate Internet networks, he explains, fosters proprietary or regional approaches that reduce competition and tie companies and consumers to their technology vendors.
Instead, “three big wireless technologies—cellular wide area networks, Wi-Fi local area networks, and Bluetooth Smart personal area networks—are sufficient,” Jawanda says. These technologies do need to become ubiquitous and more agile, however, he says. Jawanda expects that will occur with the normal evolution of the market.
While existing infrastructure is sufficient in some nations, like South Korea, where high-speed broadband access is the norm across the country, high-speed access is not yet pervasive outside major US cities. Although ranked 10th in the world for high Internet speeds, “we aren’t even at the point where every city has good Internet,” Thiruvathukal points out. Most US cities lack fiber-optic Internet access and, average connection speeds overall in the US are 10 MB per second (Mbps). South Korea’s average connection speed is 21.9 Mbps.
“Expanding the IoT from dozens to thousands of devices with regular communication patterns will likely stress the current model,” Thiruvathukal continues. “For outbound traffic, cable and DSL won’t cut it for the large numbers of things needing to communicate data upstream from the home. The present network is designed for streaming data to customers, but the IoT requires customers to also stream data to companies.”
Whichever approach ultimately wins, “fundamentally, things already speak the same languages,” Jawanda says. “What’s new is having more products embedded with wireless technology.”
San Francisco-based consumer electronics startup Whistle, the first company to sign on to Sigfox, says a citywide IoT network will help it add features to its pet activity monitors and expand its target market. For example, with a dedicated IoT network, the company says it can add location beacons to help find pets lost in the city. The alternative approach, using GPS with a cell phone connection, is too expensive for its users, the company says.
With or without a separate IoT communications backbone, networks as we currently know them will need to be transformed to support the hyper-connectivity requirements of IoT.
This article by Gail Dutton originally appeared on Forbes PTCVoice.