IoT Networks, Smart Cities: What Can People Expect?


The emergence of city-specific IoT networks is having a growing impact on people’s lives. The concept of IoT devices in general is no longer a novelty; it’s a technological medium already used by millions of people in their everyday lives to do everything from controlling the temperatures in their homes to queuing up their entertainment selections in home cinemas. But the advent of IoT networks built specifically for community wide, public applications has brought this revolution to the next stage – and is making IoT applications integral to modernizing cities, facilitating the rise of “smart cities” across the globe.

The deployment of Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWANs) has enabled cities to increase efficiencies in many areas—such as energy usage, waste management, and traffic control—through the monitoring of real-time data that is actionable. And, as an emerging technology, it’s important to note they are designed to be easy to set up and maintained with little investment—a critical factor for any municipality considering the integration of IoT devices. LPWANs use very little energy, small amounts of data and low levels of bandwidth. They exist to do one thing very well: data-light machine-to-machine communication.

The rapid rise of connected devices and the municipal networks that make up smart cities hasn’t been without complications, however. Multiple companies have sprung up to meet the growing need for wide-scale IoT networks, each with their own unique set of connectivity protocols. While competition in the marketplace is always good, this has led to a compatibility problem.  Will multiple protocols including proprietary networks and devices be compatible across various community applications? If the answer is no or is unclear, then public planners and product engineers are faced with a frustrating problem, as they need to decide which network protocols to invest in, which devices will connect and which public applications might have to be shelved.

The IoT industry today is a booming one. Sigfox, a French company that specializes in building LPWAN networks and quickly becoming a dominant player in the space, recently announced that its technology has been deployed in more than one hundred markets in the United States. Other major vendors, operators and network providers are gaining traction as well, from Google to AT&T and from Cisco to Huawei to General Electric; all of which are vying for either a dominant role in the industrial and/or consumer IoT space. This momentum is expected—in fact, market firm Juniper Research recently estimated that IoT devices, including sensors, devices and actuators, will reach a milestone mark of 46 billion installed by 2021—a 200 percent increase compared to 2016.

While many people are clamoring for answers as to which connection protocol – or protocols – will dominate the market, the reality is that it is still too early to know which protocol will win out.

Just like most markets, though, network devices need time to evolve.  Just under a decade ago, many scoffed when Apple announced that they would be releasing a phone with no buttons, and today it’s strange to see anyone with the “old” kind of phone, clunky as they are with their physical keys.

Of course, just as soon as Apple came to dominate the market—with their own self-contained operating system, and a whole market of third-party hardware built just around it—Android phones entered the fray and quickly became the other major player. Today, iPhones are some of the most ubiquitous phones on the market, but Android phones account for over 80% of the phones in the world.

What’s clear in the IoT world is that there is plenty of room for variability and evolution in LPWAN networks and protocols. There may be one dominant protocol, or there may be many – and, more important to note, there is every reason to believe that there will be players that both rise and fall as the market continues to evolve, becomes more widespread, and meets more needs.

The best way for product-makers to adapt to this reality is to make devices that can be compatible with multiple network protocols; and to do this it will be necessary for developers and manufacturers to work closely with all those groups involved in setting standards from ITU to IEEE to IPSO and from the LoRa Alliance to the Thread Group and so on. This already happens today in the consumer cellphone market—OEMs are able to work with carriers and trade and standards organizations to ensure that select devices are cross compatible with networks that work on different frequencies. It’s how consumers can use the same phone when travelling internationally. The precedent is set in a similar market and there’s no reason it can’t be the same for the emerging IoT one.

The strides made by LPWANs in the last few years have opened up exciting new opportunities for cities and people alike. It is now a question of when, not whether, smart cities will become the norm worldwide and share common applications and features. While there are still many questions over which network protocols will come to dominate the IoT market, what is clear is that millions of people will be able to take advantage of all the services that a smart city brings to its citizens – and that’s an exciting situation to be in.

Edited by Ken Briodagh

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