The idea of everyday devices becoming smart once conjured up visions of sci-fi fantasy. One popular concept became a reality as far back as 1999, when the first interactive fridge that alerted owners to items that needed replacing was prototyped in Sweden. But with the recent explosion of smart technology, the possibility of an ultra-connected world powered by the internet of things now seems nothing short of an inevitability.
ABI Research predicts that there will be 30 billion devices connected to the interactive network of things by 2020 – and this means much more than just clever fridges. In the developing world in particular, the use of machine to machine (M2M) technology has the potential to make a real difference to the way people live their lives. Inter-connected devices could empower countries to develop everything from systems offering early earthquake warnings, to smart agricultural and animal farming methods.
The European Research Cluster on the Internet of Things (IERC) points out that in Africa in particular, many of these concepts are already a reality. A Tanzanian logistics firm is currently relying on radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to ensure that oil products are distributed to the correct customers in East and Central Africa, while a similar scheme in Nigeria relies on RFID to secure the integrity of the drug supply chain and reduce the problem of drug counterfeiting in the area.
This is soon to extend beyond the world of business into other sectors. A Kenyan research group is developing heat sensors that will relay fire alerts to forest stations, while a system to monitor water quality in Malawi is under development at the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden. In the more economically developed world, hospital patients can now be fitted with sensors which monitor vital signs in real time. Cars are in development which will contain thousands of sensors, automatically relaying information on servicing requirements and collecting and applying driver preferences.
Behind all of these advances the network is still the essential plumbing which enables smart devices and sensors to communicate with one another. Consequently, with M2M becoming increasingly evolved across both developed and emerging markets, operators which dismiss the internet of things as a trend for the future will struggle to manage the flow of information between devices. Frost & Sullivan has predicted that the M2M market will grow by 33% year-on year between 2011 and 2016, with SIM connections reaching 75 million inside the next five years. IMS research has predicted that by 2020, network-connected devices will generate more than 2.5 quintillion bytes of new data per day, all of which will be flowing through networks.
With more devices than ever before set to rely on telecom infrastructure, this is a huge market opportunity for operators that plan now, but it could be fatal to those that don’t. Network automation will be an important tool for operators as they battle with the increased traffic created by complex devices and sensors that will be connected to networks.
Businesses will look to operators to develop bespoke M2M apps and as such, operators will also have to start looking to inexpensive, programmable hardware that can be controlled by software. Utilising software defined networking (SDN) will help operators as they look to build apps at a price point that allows for rapid innovation.
As connectivity and sensors become cheaper, wifi coverage becomes more widespread and mobile devices penetrate further across both the developed and developing world, it is only a matter of time before M2M becomes commonplace throughout society. Consumers and businesses are already looking beyond their mobiles and tablets for smart technology and with inter-device connectivity set to revolutionise everything from the healthcare sector through to the manufacturing and delivery industries, people will be expecting resilient networks with huge amounts of bandwidth. In an ultra-connected world, the operators that deliver these connections most effectively will be the real winners.
Chris Marrison is EMEA technical director of Infoblox