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Tackling the myths of the IoT

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By Nick Flaherty





Back in 2011 there was a lot of hype about the Internet of Things (IoT) and the industry expected to see 50bn connected devices by 2020. Device rollout is less than a quarter of that, as the challenges are not just about the technology but the way a business works, says Prof William Webb.

“It difficult to know how many connected devices there are,” said Webb. “Many are connected via Bluetooth or Wifi, and we can look at chipset sales and build up estimates and we have hit 8.5bn connected devices in 2020, so that’s a long way short of 50bn. Even on the current growth path we are unlikely to hit that 50bn until 2035 or 2040. One of the key reasons was a much too simplistic view of what it takes to connect devices.”

“I believe very strongly in the IoT, it is of vital importance in a world of aging population and climate change. The IoT is the base to gather the data we need,” said Webb, who developed the Weightless communications protocol and was CEO of the Weightless Special Interest Group (SIG) until 2019. He was appointed chief technology officer of millimetre wave technology specialist Cambridge Broadband Networks Group (CBNG) last month.

“That 50bn devices is credible, we can get there, we just need to learn the lessons from the past and apply them to the future,” he said.

He points to the example of a connected rubbish bin (trash can). “To connect the bin is pretty straightforward but its what happens behind that that is the challenge. What you need for that is more like an ‘uber’ of bin collection and that’s a completely different model, different skills in the workforce, different rota systems, the amount of change in the real world is enormous. That was not really understood initially.

Next: IoT connections


A second problem is the connection itself. There are many ways to make the connection and that’s  a problem, he says. “You have to choose what technology you want to put into the device, and if you don’t know which one, that can be a problem. After a few years if that system is withdrawn or stops working, or doesn’t have the required range or battery life, you are stuck.

The third problem is there are so many different areas to change the whole business process to allow the data to be used and processed. “You need different kinds of people, more digital skills, and change for partners with overall different business systems. A lot of things need to be done before you can introduce IoT and make it work.”

He points to a number of promising new developments but they need to treated with caution.

“AI  is enormously valuable. In the IoT world the sensors will generate a huge amount of data ad all of this can move into a big cloud system and AI can act on that data and be really powerful in generating insights. That only works when you have got the data in the first place,” he said. “AI enhances an IoT system that is already there and working well – until you have that in place you can’t use the AI. We can rely on AI to deliver even more value from IoT once we hit those 50bn units

5G does not add any new IoT technology for sensors, he says. Those will still connect via 4G narrowband connections, and the option 5G may confuse as people may expect new capabilities. The low latency provided by 5G is a small subset, maybe 1 percent by volume, although by value it may be higher than that, he adds.

“I would concentrate on segments and sectors where IoT can be introduced where things don’t need to change too much with an immediate financial benefit. It needs to be packaged through systems integrators that can make everything work. It also needs to be done patiently,” he said.

“It’s very easy for the technology department to prove that the technology works, but a trial needs to be sponsored by senior management and the finance department. Otherwise you end up in the proof of concept hell – its easy to have a trial but very hard to move beyond that trial,” he said.

He points to Smart Cities where there are hundreds of trials, and a lot of data is being generated, from sensors in transportation, healthcare, metering, water and monitoring pollution levels. “All this feeds back into a data lake. Cities have changed dramatically with Covid-19 – there’s far less congestion, but the emphasis on tracking people to track their contacts and make sure that logistics work really well when people start panic buying or the need for protective equipment expands,” he said.

“This will only succeed if we bring everyone together, including local councils with concerns such as privacy. It’s about making sure that we find a solution across all of the partners, and that’s really difficult.”

Last year Webb published a book on the challenges of the IoT

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