One of the first decisions Theresa May made on becoming Prime Minister after the Brexit referendum was to approve the manufacture of four replacement submarines for our Trident nuclear weapons system. She argued that it would be an “act of gross irresponsibility” for the UK to abandon the continuous-at-sea weapons system, continuing the logic that a submarine which cannot be traced is an invisible force for retribution which would deter an aggressor.
I’ll pass on the issue of whether or not we should have nuclear weapons. That’s a different and important point to argue. What I’d like to highlight here is that whilst the concept that a nuclear submarine was undetectable may have been valid in the 1960s, it’s no longer the case. The countries that signed up to the principle of Mutually Assured Destruction now have the technology to know exactly where each other’s submarines are. So what is Trident meant to be protecting us from?
If you attended the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this year, you might have thought that the Internet of Things was mainly about bikes and labradors, as they were the mainstay of applications which were depicted on most IoT stands. The reason for that was a marketing push for Narrow Band IoT (NB-IOT) orchestrated by the GSM Association, who had picked up on two applications from early trials and was promoting them at every opportunity.
There’s probably a good market for tracking labradors, as in my experience they’re not the smartest breed in the canine world, but they’re definitely a lot smarter than anyone who believed the IoT message that the network operators were pushing out in Barcelona. According to companies like Vodafone, commercial trials were only four months away, with commercial services next year. But you need more than marketing to make something happen. So here’s my view of the real progress of NB-IOT.
Back in 2010, Ericsson set the bar for much of the subsequent hype around the Internet of Things by making a very pubic prediction that by 2020 there would be 50 billion internet connected devices. Others have been more or less aggressive, suggesting “conservative” numbers of 20 billion, while some have stretched credulity with projections up to 1.5 trillion. The 50 billion isn’t just IoT, it covers everything from phones to smart TVs to tractors, but the biggest single element is what we now call the Internet of Things, with the original 50 billion prediction including around 20 billion cellular IoT connections.
Most analysts have supported the Ericsson line with an estimate somewhere between 30 and 50 billion. But just before Christmas, in their latest Mobility Report, Ericsson quietly changed their minds. They still kept the headline number of around 50 billion connected devices, but dropped the number of cellular connected IoT devices in 2020 from their previous estimate of 20 billion to just over 1 billion.
The important word here is cellular. This week, as the mobile community gathered in Barcelona for their annual jamboree, which is the Mobile World Congress, the industry was still full of expectation that they would own the Internet of Things, and more importantly, the revenue associated with it. Ericsson doesn’t want to spoil that hope with any blatant contradictions, but if you look more closely at the implication of their new numbers, the IoT aspirations of the networks look less than rosy, as their revenue projections begin to disappear into thin air.
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.
What has the hacking of Ashley Madison got in common with smart homes? The answer is that both are likely to increase the number of divorces. If that seems a strange statement, talk to the wife or partner of anyone who’s got a smart home system (it’s generally the husband who buys and installs them). Most feel that it’s not improved their quality of life; it’s just added another level of frustration, because now they have a home which can go wrong.
Of course, that’s not the message the industry wants to get out. If you believe the analysts and the smart home manufacturers, your home is about to evolve from the thick bricks on the block to the Nobel Prize winning genius of housing. Technology is finally about to transform the place you live in into a high IQ domicile that reacts to your mood and presence, keeps you safe and saves you energy.
It’s a great story that plays to some excellent futuristic videos, from global technology giants like AT&T, through boutique technology leaders like Nest to the successful crowdfunded visions of Oomi, Nuimi, and Blaze Automation. In their vision, it’s slick, it’s sexy and it’s almost here.
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.