If you find yourself at a party with a person who will not stop talking, try asking, “What do you know about this ‘Internet of Things?’” Most people will just stare back, confused. For all the buzz, there is not much clarity. The Internet of Things, or IoT for us insiders, is really more of a concept than a technology. It isn’t something you can buy, invest in, or hold in your hand. The term itself was coined in 1985, six years before there was a World Wide Web and back when the word Internet just meant a network between computers, the same way Interstate means a highway connecting two states. It seems impossible that when Peter T. Lewis used the phrase at an FCC conference he had any idea that it would take on its current meaning.
So what is “The Internet of Things?”
The short answer is that it is a concept. The longer answer is that it is the idea of connecting things that we have not previously thought of as requiring a connection. We always understood that a communications device, like the telephone or telegraph, needed a network, they simply did not exist without one. Other resources, however, have not always had a network. Water, for example, was transported in containers before there was a system of pipes to carry it everywhere. Now we cannot imagine water that doesn’t flow right out of the faucet. Before the electrical grid, energy was unleashed on site by heating water with burning coal or wood and using the power of steam to generate electricity where it was needed. Similarly, we have countless tools in our lives that have never required a connection to each other. Those are the “Things” in IoT.
For lay people those Things are mundane. If you hear people using “smart” as an adjective, they are describing a device on the Internet of Things. It’s hard to imagine how important it is to have a smart refrigerator, and there have been movies made about smart houses rebelling (the smart house in the television series Eureka is prone to jealousy). However, there are significant IoT technologies beyond being able to place an Amazon order from any room in your house. For example, in the past during power overloads, usually on hot days when air conditioners are all running at full tilt, the only way to avert disaster was with rolling blackouts, where power was selectively cut to various regions in sequence. With smart air conditioners, during peak loads the cooling devices could still operate, but at higher temperature to assure that no one user is without power. While it sounds like Big Brother controlling our lives, it is exactly the same concept as a rolling blackout only without the 30-minute intervals without any power at all.
Also on the Internet of Things are monitoring sensors to avert a whole host of disasters. Those sensors are already on things like pressure gauges and overload detectors, deployed in industrial and commercial applications, like production lines, utilities and traffic. Until recently those sensors only sent data locally, to a control panel or maybe to another room in the same location. They will become much more common, and will send data anywhere. An engineer in Kentucky can be making decisions about a production line in Thailand using real-time information. That is IoT. Today’s experiments with self-driving automobiles are just a training step. Eventually self-driving vehicles will not rely on radar and optical sensors to know there is another car coming, they will know because the vehicles will be communicating with each other, and with the road itself. Smart pacemakers will not only detect and correct cardiac arrhythmias; they will transmit data to a hospital in real time, and send an ambulance if the device itself can’t be used to solve the problem.
On the less flashy, consumer side, the Internet of Things will be a refrigerator that will warn you, reading an RF id tag on the carton, that your milk has gone sour before you take that gut clenching sip. Your KitchenAid mixer will get instructions directly from the recipe you are reading on yummy.com to whip the perfect meringue, just before the fluffy peaks turn to gelatinous goo. Your bed will know you are walking from the living room to the bathroom, confirm that you have ended your Firefly marathon, receive information from your electric toothbrush, and calculate that you are going to be arriving soon. It will measure both the indoor and outdoor temperatures, then warm itself to a comfy 72 degrees so when you slip in your toes will be nice and toasty. That is the pretty side of IoT, but it has warts.
IoT, Warts and All.
Last week in the big WikiLeaks dump “Year Zero” of Vault 7, they claimed, with yet undisputed evidence, that the CIA has fairly easy access to all of your IoT devices. They have apparently been listening into private conversations through smart TVs, even when those TVs are off. WikiLeaks claims in their summary that the CIA can pretty much put a hit on anyone by hacking into the computers in their cars. If you have information the CIA wants and you talk about it on your smartphone, don’t bother sending the spy agency a transcript because they already know. It is easy to hear this and get ready to toss the IoT baby right out the window, but the spying, leaks and lack of privacy are the dirty bathwater. There will be both policy and enforcement issues at the government level that any new technology brings. And we will need to demand that they be addressed.
The inherent device security will improve only to the point that the end users demand. If news of the CIA hacking of smart televisions has no impact on sales of the devices, the market will have spoken. Manufacturers, programmers and governments are only going to take steps secure the IoT enough to keep the users in the game. Given generations of people who think it is perfectly normal to send the world news of their breakfast, who they are sleeping with, and when they drink too much, maybe privacy concerns themselves are changing.
The IoT also raises connectivity issues. When your car is getting 200 instructions per minute, it’s not okay if the connection drops for even a few seconds. We are going need, and come to expect, a connection that flows like water from our tap. It will not be acceptable for cable connections to slow down when all the kids get home from school at 4:00 and start playing Xbox. More reliable bonded internet connections are available now, but still mostly used in enterprise applications.
A bonded connection uses different communication channels to make a single, wider, more reliable pipe. For example, a cable hook-up may provide the most economical and fastest connection, and it will be paired with a cellular or satellite connection running next to it. The secondary connection may be significantly more expensive per megabyte, so technologies like Peplink’s SpeedFusion will route all but .00001% of the traffic to the primary connection while keeping the alternative channel open. In the event of a primary channel failure, or even just a hiccup, data will seamlessly flow into the secondary path without even a microsecond of delay. In order to be fully implemented the IoT is going to need these unbreakable connections. For more on how Frontier and Peplink are currently involved with IoT you can read this case study from our office in the Netherlands.
While it may not be time to nap while you are driving the freeway, and it is still a good idea to give the milk a little sniff before you take a big chug, it won’t be long before there is no buzz around the words “Internet of Things.” The connection of nearly every device in our lives will be a lot like breathing, something we don’t even think about until it doesn’t work right.
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