The Internet of Things – is it all over the top?

Around 10,000 years ago, humans started to live in settled communities. They became farmers and established an enduring connection between mankind and nature. That connection is at the forefront of the Internet of Things.

untitledMeet Bob Dawson. Bob has driven tractors and combine harvesters for nearly 40 years. For the last three years, he has driven both vehicles at the same time. He sits in his combine harvester while it is steered via GPS. On-board applications measure the crop yield in real-time passing information back to analyse for future sowing and spraying. The driver-free tractor is being driven by the same application as in the harvester cab. The trailer’s sensors monitor when it is full and the harvester automatically switches off the grain chute and tells the tractor to take the trailer to a waiting truck. Precision agriculture is with us and the Internet of Things (IoT) is at its heart.

What is the relationship between the IoT and Over The Top (OTT) applications, and what are the implications of IoT for customers, for network operators and for society in general?

There are four umbrella elements of the IoT:

  • Devices – A truly interconnected world could have hundreds of billions, even trillions, of devices. For example, every piece of packaging for every prescribed drug, every food wrapper. Every few metres of every stream in the world could have its own device in the water enabling analysis of water levels, quality, climate and sustainability.
  • Connectivity – for many IoT applications, the connectivity requirements are ubiquitous coverage, low unit costs, low data rates over many years. There are other applications that require high speed, low latency and massive bandwidths. There are many fragmented alliances and consortia and, if some succeed, it could be a crack in the mobile operators’ defences as the gatekeeper for business-grade mobile connectivity.
  • Applications – Uber has become a wellknown OTT taxi-hailing application. But Uber has bigger goals – to remove the need for people to own, or even drive, cars and to remove the need for towns to build any more car parks, where cars sit doing nothing all day while their owners are at work. Applications are often seen as the place to be in the value chain, as they are perceived to be where the value flows to. Barriers to entry are small – it needs network connectivity to run but does not require the negotiation of a direct relationship with the network operator.
  • Analysis – the volumes of data produced by IoT devices and applications, combined with unstructured, qualitative data such social media feeds, means that “data science” is a critical skill. The automated nature of IoT means that much of the interpretation will itself be done in an algorithmic, or possibly more “neural network learning” way by machines themselves.

What are the implications for network operators? Consumers are more than willing to purchase applications and services direct from third-parties minimising their dealings with fixed and mobile operators. IoT could extend this separation dramatically. Operators therefore will have to build networks and carry data packets in such a way that unit costs falls more quickly than the price they can charge. At the same time, operators have vast amounts of network data and customer / device data. They will have to develop their own data analysis skills, both to improve their own business and to sell insight-based services to others.

And the implications for wider society? If an individual driver has a car crash, then that driver might learn for next time. If an autonomous Tesla car has a crash, then all Tesla cars in the world can learn for next time. A world in which high-quality interconnected networks enable new applications and services to launch rapidly to reach and connect consumers, citizens and devices over the top of those networks ought to be a good thing. At the same time an interconnected network is only as secure as its weakest connection. It can be hacked.

IoT has the potential to become embedded in almost every aspect of society and so its adoption raises questions of balance between individual, social, political and economic goals. Solving these is likely to be a series of steps and iterations – rather like a human version of a self-learning network.

This is a summary of a full article which appeared in The Journal, December 2016. To access the article in full visit the ITP website (free for members).

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