The Internet of Things

Market place or public space

The IoT

In 1982, a group of students from Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania connected a soft drink machine on their campus to the Internet. It allowed them to find out from a distance if drinks were available, and whether they were cold enough. It was the year Commodore International launched its iconic 64 computer, considered one of the most successful early personal computers. Incidentally, Commodore advertised its C64 with the slogan “are you keeping up with Commodore? Because Commodore is keeping up with you.” Could they have imagined that 3 decades later the combination of the connected machines with brutal processing power would truly allow computers to keep up with us and spark a revolution called the Internet of Things?

The Internet of Things is a network of sensors that link objects, buildings or even human beings to computers, storage and sending/receiving capacity. The fact that the objects, buildings or humans can now gather data, process them, and make decisions on the basis of this information makes them smart. This obviously leads to an almost endless array of possibilities to do things more efficiently, more comfortably or better informed. Examples of machines that become possible through the Internet of Things range from cities that better manage flows of resources and people, to self-driving cars to fridges that self-refill. It has been suggested that by 2020 25 billion objects will be connected to the Internet of Things. [For reference, the Internet reached its 3rd billion user only in 2015].

Reaching for the cloud

Where the price of sensors and storage space has dropped substantially over the last decade [seel also Sensors, Big Data and Code], the price of wirelessly connecting remains high. The current options are 2G, 3G, 4G and GPRS/EDGE and they come at between 0.25 and 0.5 Euro per Megabite. The cost of installing this technology has proven expensive to providers, in large part due to the fact that the limited bandwidth was auctioned off at a high price. The jury is still out on whether or not the consumer is still footing that bill, in the sense that providers are still passing on the auctioning price to consumers. On top of that, these technologies are very energy consuming. For grid-connected devices this is only an ecological problem, but on mobile devices it drains batteries and reduces their lifespan.

Two technologies, four organisations

Internet of Things applications, however, do not require the data rates offered by these existing technologies [or the announced 5G networks]. Cheaper and less energy-hungry alternatives are therefore currently being proposed. They are referred to as Low Power Wide Area Network or LPWAN, and are characterized by communication over long distance at small data-rates, so ideal for battery-powered sensors.

In Brussels, two possible LPWAN infrastructures are currently being rolled out: Ultra Narrow Band (UNB) and Low-Power Network [LPN]. The technological difference is almost insignificant. Or only as important as the difference between JVC VHS and Betamax videotapes, for those who remember that format war. What distinguishes the two infrastructures really, is the organizations and business model behind them. UNB is used by SIGFOX, a French private company that aims at having large operators deploy its networks. It gives away its technology to whatever manufacturer wants to build its transmitters/receivers, and aims at making a profit on the network as a service by having operators pay royalties. Meaning in places like France when you use an LPWAN network, you are in effect using and paying SIGFOX. In each country SIGFOX works with an SNO (a SIGFOX Network Operator), bearing similarity to the exclusivity agreements Apple signed with operators for its Iphone (for which it was sued in 2012). In Brussels they chose to work with Engie, formarly known as GDF Suez.

LPN on the other hand is promoted by the LoraAlliance. The LoraAlliance is an open, non-profit association of members like multi-nationals, tele-communication companies, equipment manufacturers and start-ups and is led by SemTech, a supplier of Semiconductors. Sponsoring members [who pay $50.000 annually] have more governing authority than other members. The aim of the alliance is to promote a standard to facilitate the Internet of Things. Belgian provider Proximus is a member of the alliance, and has rolled out Lora in Brussels. It organizes hands on sessions to familiarize maker communities with their technology. Additionally, two other players are entering the game in Brussels: no-frills internet service provider Wireless Things, and Intellinet , building on Dutch community project The Things Network in Belgium. The Things Network is a crowd-sourced project that is currently building its open-source infrastructure in 40 cities worldwide.

Capacity to earn, spend or act

New technology heralds new opportunities, as well as new risks of exclusion and inequality. The opportunities offered by the Internet of Things have been revered widely, and were maybe even over-hyped at one point. In 2009 Ericsson still estimated the number of devices expected to be online by 2020 at about 50 billion, its updated estimate five years later was only half of that. Nonetheless, the Internet of Things is finding its way into our lives. Currently predominantly via our smartphones and workout monitors, and in the industry mainly in the security sector to monitor premises from a distance, the Internet of Things is expected to invade our lives more substantially in the coming years. Under the banner of M2M, or machine-to-machine communication, we are relegating many of our choices to computers and algorithms, which get their information from connected sensors, and will therefore become part of the Internet of Things.

This raises a crucial debate: how do we imagine the future of the Internet of Things? Is it like the automobile industry of the early 20th century a next growth industry, or is it like the Internet a protocol capable of facilitating a global system of interconnectedness? Is it a service we buy and expect private companies to provide us with in return for a profit, or is it a service on which our health and civil liberties will depend in the near future, and therefore better remain in the hands of the public? Do we allow market forces to shape the landscape of IoT, or should oversight guarantee the equivalent of “net neutrality” [the principle that Internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source].

The Pacco-test confronted City Mine(d) with the IoT. The Pacco-test is an electronic water qualiy tester that enables communities to monitor the quality of surface water in their local area. Built from the bottom-up by community groups, it now comes at a stage where collected data should go to the cloud. In essence the point where the micro-computer with its 5 probes becomes part of the Internet of Things. The questions we find ourselves confronted with are: which technology to use, which companies to contact, and what role have governments to play should this technology really become capable of keeping up with us at all time?

Invitation

These questions are an open invitation to all those involved in the Internet of Things; to share your experiences and opinions, to offer warnings and insights, and to imagine the future of the Internet of Things.

contact jim@citymined.org if you want to get involved in this debate.