To predict the IoT future, it helps to look to the past

The Internet of Things, or IoT, is a pretty frothy space these days. Chief among the foam-makers are new network providers of what is broadly known as LPWANs, which are a category of new, low bandwidth connectivity solutions marketed as optimized for IoT.

I think these claims can be disputed by taking a look at how similar technology has fared in the past. These “new” solutions are really dusted-off versions of technology architectures that lost out years ago. If you worked in this space 10 years ago, then left the industry and returned today, you might believe that virtually nothing has changed in that time.

First, some quick history. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a variety of solutions had been introduced to facilitate machine-to-machine networking.  Think of names like CellNet, Hexagram, and Whisper. Today, they are all gone. Why? Although they technically delivered some minimum level of functionality, they failed in some important ways; specifically, they were entirely proprietary and too limited in capacity to support a range of applications. Had they survived until 2016, they would be ridiculed for their insufficient security—which largely results from their limited capacity or bandwidth.

Many of today’s IoT solutions, though, aren’t much better. Most offer bandwidth of fewer than 50 kbps, some much lower.  Security? Most rely on a “security by obscurity” approach (betting that their relatively limited footprint makes them a less attractive target for hackers and malware), while others assume that 128-bit AES encryption provides plenty of protection. None offer a complete security architecture for important applications. 

Eric Dresselhuys, Co-Founder and EVP of Global Development, Silver Spring Networks

Eric Dresselhuys, Co-Founder and EVP of Global Development, Silver Spring Networks

They’re similarly lacking in standards. One CTO of an LPWAN provider recently argued that connectivity standards are important for everything IoT except networking, ultimately concluding his proprietary approach to IoT networks is “good enough.” 

This last point is particularly troubling. It’s not that these folks are unaware of standards; rather, they are purposely working to avoid standardization.  At least they’re being candid about it, unlike companies that own and promote proprietary technologies but hide behind user groups to give the appearance of standardization and openness.   

For any LPWAN (or even more importantly, its customers), time has taught us three immutable lessons. Ignore these at your peril.

  1. Standards always win.  In networking, IP always wins – it eats everything in its path.  Machina Research has placed the value of standardization at US$341 billion worldwide by 2025, but I suspect that’s low. True standards such as Wi-Fi and Wi-SUN ignite markets, accelerate adoption and drive innovation. No company in the IoT networking space can do that on its own.
  2. Any worthwhile network will spur greater use and need more bandwidth.  When we started Silver Spring over a decade ago, people believed that 100kbps was too high a capacity.  Our most recent products support up to 2.4 Mbps – over 20 times the capacity of 10 years ago.  Why?  Everyone wants more and you can do more at the same or lower cost today.  Sound familiar?
  3. Security can no longer be an afterthought. As the IoT begins to connect the kind of critical infrastructure that defines the quality of life for people around the world, IoT will become The Internet of Important Things. That means security is vital. And yes, it will cost some bandwidth and processing power to do it right. The first major hack of an industrial or municipal IoT application that shuts down highways or disrupts water service will cost a lot more than the few pennies it takes to get it right the first time.

I’m pleased to say that there are some who have learned from the past and refuse to relive it. Robust, capacious, secure and proven IoT networking solutions are available today in both public and private cloud infrastructures. Use them, deploy them, and you could tap into the over US$11 trillion in value that McKinsey forecasts will be created from IoT. Do it with standards-based, IP networking with enough capacity to go beyond ”good enough” and you just might create something beyond great.

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