It’s a New Year, which means it’s time for the annual week of madness in Las Vegas which is the Consumer Electronics Show. For four days, the electronics industry comes together to tell consumers what they ought to be buying, whilst analysts and the media try to predict what will really be the hot product sector for the coming year.
Over the last few years, as PCs, tablets and phones have lost their wow factor, that’s proven to be a little more difficult than it used to be. In 2014, the consensus was that wearables would be the next big thing. They have definitely made strides beyond basic step counting, but are still smouldering rather than setting the world on fire. Instead, the innovation which caught the public imagination at CES in 2014 was the selfie stick.
In 2015, the smart money was on smart homes. But with a few exceptions, consumers felt the smart thing to do with their money was to buy more selfie sticks. This year, the pundits will probably predict that 2016 will be the year of the drone. My guess is that most consumers will still prefer to buy selfie sticks. Unless someone comes up with cheap drones that take selfies*.
Of course, like all good works of fiction, the CES show contains a number of interesting subplots, one of which will be the battle for mesh.
All of a sudden, there’s a lot of activity in the Long Range wireless network community. In France, Orange has just announced that they’re going to follow in Bouygues’ footsteps in deploying a LoRa network for M2M which will cover the whole of metropolitan France. That in turn follows on from a similar announcement from KPN that they are planning to do the same thing in Holland, while Proximus are going to cover Belgium and Luxembourg. It’s a bit like a rerun of the SigFox PR offensive, after they managed to sign up operators in France, Holland, Portugal, Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark, Spain, the U.K. and San Francisco. Nor is it just a European phenomenon. In the U.S., Ingenu, the company which was formerly known as On Ramp, has raised $100 million to roll out its own similar, proprietary network. It seems that there’s a new announcement almost every day. So it’s interesting to look at why mobile operators are desperately announcing new network technologies to support M2M and IoT applications, when just a few months ago they gave the impression that they would rule the IoT with their 4G networks.
When you stop and look behind all of this activity, you see something that should be worrying the M2M and IoT industry (which is not the same as the cellular industry). For the last fifteen years they’ve not had to worry much about how they make their data connections – they just embedded a GPRS module and bought a data contract. But look forward a few years and there’s a worrying hole in the air as networks start to switch off their GPRS networks. That’s just beginning to dawn on network operators, who see an unexpectedly unpleasant vision of the future, in which their anticipated IoT revenues could disappear into thin air.
In the last blog I wrote about the immense damage that could be done to the market for connected personal devices and the Internet of Things by licensing the 2.3GHz spectrum to mobile networks. As OFCOM is still asking for consultation responses prior to their auction I thought it timely to list some of the reasons that I believe justify a delay in releasing this spectrum. If you agree that it should be postponed, you have until June 26th to send OFCOM your views. Please do, as I believe this could cost the industry billions of pounds and push back innovation.
The battle is between mobile network operators, who want more spectrum and the ongoing survival of the 2.4GHz band. The 2.4GHz spectrum is unlicensed, and used by the wireless standards in most consumer devices, including Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, ZigBee and others. If mobile phones start to use frequencies close to 2.4GHz, it will degrade the performance of these products. Your Internet access may slow down, audio bars and Sonos systems may get noisy, hearing aids will perform poorly, the response of smart home systems could get sluggish or stop. Everything that uses the 2.4GHz band may work less well and have a reduced range, to the point where they’re no longer compelling devices. If that happens, users will stop buying products, businesses may close, investors will lose their money and the current Internet of Things bubble will be firmly burst.
There are a lot of “mays” in that. That’s because we can’t be sure. To their credit, OFCOM have commissioned some tests which show that there is a problem, but they didn’t test enough, or new enough products to determine the true extent of the problem. OFCOM’s response is to say that manufacturers need to redesign their products to be more resistant to interference. However, that adds cost, the technology is not yet available for small products and it can’t be retrofitted to the billions of existing products already on the market. For that reason I believe any auction should be delayed to give the industry time to test and see if it can develop solutions. Otherwise the costs could be enormous.
Don’t worry – it’s not a blog about Tindr or Grindr. The connections we’re talking about here are mobile subscriptions and the men are those at this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. It is still mostly men. Despite the best efforts of the GSMA with sub-events like the Connected Women’s Summit and France’s promotion of its exhibiting companies as “La France Tech” (which must have had the members of the Académie Française heading to their graves for some early turning), MWC remained defiantly male. In the opening keynotes around 85% of the audience were men. Telecoms, for all of its populist marketing, is still largely a suited profession.
What was exercising the males of the species this year was numbers. Back in 2009, Ericsson predicted that there would be 50 billion mobile connections by 2020. At the time it seemed possible; phone usage was growing and everyone expected that the things around us would follow suit by getting their own mobile connections, leading us to that kind of number. It’s now beginning to strike the CEOs within the industry that five and a half years have passed and we’re half-way there. Yet we’ve still only connected a few tens of millions of machines. That’s why they’re getting so excited about wearables and the Internet of Things as the only way to make those predictions come true.
The mobile industry loves hype. Now that 4G phones have reached the market, suppliers are keen to promote the next dollop of “jam tomorrow” by offering the world 5G – something that’s still rather nebulous, but as always in this industry, allegedly better than what we have today. Most users have still to experience 4G, but that’s par for the course. The industry loves something new, preferably with a bigger number. It begs the question of whether we need it, and even what it is? To try and answer these questions it’s instructive to look back at the history of mobile to see just what the “G”s mean.
Today Google and Nest launched the Thread Group – a new wireless network for home automation. It’s not the first and it won’t be the last, but it has some important names behind it. The big two are Google and Nest, not least because Nest’s products may already be using it. But others in the consortium are interesting. ARM is there. Today they power most of our mobile phones, providing the IP behind the processors in billions of chips. But they have a vision of being the microprocessor architecture of choice for the Internet of Things. They processors will be smaller, cheaper and lower powered, but will provide the first opportunity for chip vendors to think about trillions. ARM’s inclusion in the group is an obvious step in their process of acquisition and investment in IoT companies.
Samsung are there (aren’t they always), but so are some very large names in home automation, such as Big Ass Fans and Chubb. And what must be worrying the ZigBee community is that Freescale and Silicon Labs complete the list of founder members.
The important point here is that Thread is not ZigBee. It works in the same spectrum and can use the same chips. It is also a mesh network. But it is not compatible. As the Thread technology backgrounder says, they looked at other radio standards and found them lacking, so they started working on a new wireless mesh protocol. To put it more crudely, it’s Google and Nest saying “ZigBee doesn’t work”.