A rash of standardisation efforts and new technologies is bringing the so-called Internet of Things a step closer; should we be worried?
In his 1999 book 'When Things Start to Think', MIT's Neil Gershenfeld wrote about a future where computers and sensors would be in every thing, talking to each other via self-adapting networks, and doing useful tasks without human intervention. A 'thinking' coffeemaker, he said, would have access to your bed and mug status, calendar, and consumption records, so it knew when to brew your morning cup.
Nowadays, a 1960s Goblin Teasmade is still a more serviceable option than Gershenfeld's 'smart' coffee machine. What has changed since he outlined his vision is that the Internet has become ubiquitous and many quite useful machine-to-machine (M2M) applications have become practical, including smart utility metering, intelligent tracking in the supply chain, health and environmental monitoring, and even Amazon's Kindle electronic book.
A number of initiatives are underway to bring some coherence to the disparate parts of the emerging Internet of Things or IoT, to borrow a buzz phrase used in the many EC-funded ventures on this theme (including Experiential Living Lab for the Internet of Things, IoT-Architecture, IoT-Initiative, IoT@Work, ebbits, European Technology Platform on Smart Systems Integration, and CASAGRAS).
If Ericsson's CEO Hans Vestberg is correct, by 2020 there may be 50 billion 'things' connected to the Web in various ways. To accelerate the process, his company is in the process of acquiring the M2M specialist Telenor Connexion; however, 'We need scale, and we need global standards,' says Tor Bjorn Minde, research and development manager at Ericsson Labs, speaking at a recent meeting in London about M2M.
Whether 'things' are hooked onto the Web with tiny chips featuring nothing more than a Web browser, as Minde thinks will be the case, or use all the elements of today's smart phones including operating systems such as Android (as Accenture's Embedded Software Services group is predicting in its work) they will be of little benefit unless they are secure, use minimal power, and do not overwhelm existing networks by constantly reporting their status.
In America, the IEEE 802.16 WiMax standards group has started to address the requirements of M2M applications that are not covered in the main WiMax standard. These include features such as low power, support for large numbers of devices, short burst transmissions, and device tampering detection and reporting. This work will be handled through a project called P802.16p.
To make it easier to talk to 'things' over cellular networks, the GSMA, which represents the interests of the global mobile communications industry, is developing an embedded SIM. Why embedding a SIM card in an object would help and not hinder market expansion is unclear. In South Africa, for example, traffic lights containing standard SIM cards are vulnerable to vandalism by card thieves. Meanwhile, in Tasmania a local woman was recently jailed for running up a bill of nearly A$200,000 on a SIM stolen from an electricity smart-meter. Police alleged she used the SIM to access Facebook and download dozens of movies.
The European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) has been working on creating open standards for M2M communications in advance of the European Smart Metering Mandate M/441, which will require the installation of millions of communicating meters for electricity, gas, water, and heat over the coming years, followed by the development of Smart Grid applications. In October, ETSI's M2M Technical Committee will be releasing an M2M software standard that can support multiple vertical M2M applications.
In the UK, the Technology Strategy Board has just announced a £5m Internet of Things initiative beginning with a series of workshops and the launch of a Special Interest Group this summer. This will be followed by investments in feasibility studies, research and development projects and pilots, coinciding with the release of the ETSI M2M standard. Those interested in taking part can join the Knowledge Transfer Network at https://ktn.innovateuk.org.
White Space white heat?
Meanwhile, Cambridge start-up Neul, whose co-founders James Collier and Glenn Collinson co-founded Bluetooth giant CSR, hopes to create a completely new M2M standard using 'White Space' digital TV spectrum.
A number of regulators around the world have announced their intention to open up the 'white space' spectrum in the 400-800MHz band, with the USA first off the blocks. The UK, Australia, Japan, Korea, and New Zealand are expected to follow shortly. Neul's thinking is that if there were cheap chips (of the order of $2) that could be dropped into any device and could always find a network using 'White Space' spectrum, and if subscription costs for network access were only around $2 a year, it could revolutionise the nascent M2M market.
'The great thing is that there might be 100MHz in a particular location, which is more than the Wi-Fi band. This is a game changer for M2M because at these [white space] frequencies only a few thousand cells could cover the whole of the UK with no spectrum cost,' explained William Web, CTO of Neul, and former director of technology resources of the UK regulator Ofcom.
Neul's business model is to provide the bit-pipe that ships data from devices to a central point, making money by selling a suite of services (such as the global addressing system and the encryption system) to anyone who wants to run a network, rather like a franchise.
'Our job is to make sure what we do is utterly secure and that we can guarantee that a certain bit of data comes from a specified device and no other. Something like the ETSI standard will sit above that to make sense of all the data coming out,' says Webb. 'Our rule of thumb is that devices might want to send 50 to 100 bytes every few minutes. Some might do that in one big block once a month, others might do 100 bytes every 15 minutes.'
If the company has got the network dimensioning wrong and ends up with more traffic than envisaged, Webb says it will be easy to expand with more base stations. Typical base stations would only broadcast around 1W of power and because they do not need to handle multiple simultaneous conversations might be similar in complexity to a home Wi-Fi router, he says, although slightly more costly at this stage.
Neul intends to define a global standard around its technology using the same approach Ericsson took to establish Bluetooth. So far it has written most of the standard and will shortly set up a Special Interest Group through which interested parties can finish off the standard before doing interoperability testing.
Neul is not alone in its interest in using television frequencies for M2M applications. A consortium comprising BT, Arqiva and Detica has launched a bid for smart metering in the UK around their 'SmartReach' technology, based on a dedicated long-range radio network (which uses Arqiva's licensed spectrum in the 412-414MHz band currently used to transmit TV and radio signals). The partners say the network can provide 100 per cent coverage across the UK, and get to meters in hard-to-reach places.
Telecom operators seem keenest to set up M2M services for enterprise customers, but there is also interest in providing the technology to individuals who want to control items in their home.
You can already buy a GSM-controlled mains relay that lets you switch on a central heating boiler by ringing it up. Ericsson Labs, however, would like to take this idea further by revisiting a project from five years back – Wide Area Tiny Tags (WATT) – in which it developed tiny mobile radio modules to enable consumer objects to communicate over cellular networks. The next step, according to Minde, is to make it possible to add objects to a social-networking application such as Facebook so they can be instructed to carry out helpful tasks from the comfort of your 'wall'. You might ask your Facebook 'friend' robot vacuum to clean up before you get home, or tell the central heating to switch itself off.
So far no one has raised concerns about the potential risk of socially networked appliances posting guilt-inducing Facebook messages (smart coffee maker: 'Where were you this morning? You let your coffee get cold!') or accusatory Twitpics (robot vacuum cleaner: 'Look at the state of this carpet after last night'). But it is worth pausing to think about the implications of connecting billions of devices to each other and the net and putting them under the control of large corporations.
Perhaps Neil Gershenfeld never saw director Terry Gilliam's 1985 film 'Brazil', a vision of a dystopic world hobbled by too much information and too much central control. If we're going to build a fully connected world, don't be surprised if we need a few more Harry Tuttles, the revolutionary repairman (played in the movie by Robert de Niro), to keep it in line. *