If you still had any doubt that IoT is more than a buzzword and that it is here to stay and change our lives, take a look at who’s preparing to embrace it wholeheartedly. Orange announced that it will deploy its LoRa network in no less than 1300 towns in France, Softbank rolls out its LoRaWan, Comcast says it’s going to have a “trial venture” in the enterprise IoT industry, SKT already has prices set for its LoRa network. And, let us not forget that Verizon and Vodafone are quite ahead in this game – for instance, Verizon’s MVNO deal is already “ancient history”.
What does this mean for the IoT industry?
The telecom giants can no longer afford to ignore IoT. However, the smart device WAN is a growing trend, rather than a comfortable reality, because we are still working on overcoming two major obstacles: battery life and coverage.
Battery life is currently the most important hurdle in the race to network integration of smart devices. Cellular networks operate inherently power-hungry protocols; they're power hungry because they have to handle large, bulk transfers over constant bandwidth, easy hand-off from one cell tower to another (to make matters worse, easy hand-off from one cell tower to another while the phone is moving, possibly at 60 mph), and both the cell towers and the handsets need to react quickly to network events.
All these constraints are far less important for most devices in today's IoT; consequently, operators are trying to leverage the flexibility afforded by not having to deal with them.
Coverage is energy conservation's arch nemesis; just as with vocal communication, quite simply, the farther you want to be heard, the louder you need to scream – and the louder you scream, the more energy you expend. Extending coverage is also difficult for companies in the telecom field: extending the covered range requires more cell towers, and coping with the increasing traffic in already covered regions requires additional and more expensive radio and networking equipment.
What could come next?
When it comes to battery life, telecom and smart devices designers are largely in the same boat: this is tackled primarily through designing more efficient transmission protocols. Not having to deal with the constraints imposed by traditional cell protocols (such as maintaining a permanent connection with the cell tower), low-power devices spend most of their time in “deep sleep”, virtually turned off, and wake up only when they need to transmit or receive something. Protocols like Bluetooth also make an effort to ensure that as many devices as possible can operate at the same time in a small area, so that devices don't have to wait after each other to get a clear channel.
Such attempts, however, depend on availability of spectrum – radio bands or channels – which is a very expensive resource. Telecom giants are trying to be proactive about it; Vodafone, for instance, is setting aside some of its spectrum for IoT use.
Spectrum licensing costs also have a direct impact over coverage and deployment; this is where telecom companies are mostly on their own. Some companies are attempting to build an IoT infrastructure on top of their existing networks, but there are inherent limits to how much you can upgrade existing technology; the field is lucrative enough, though, that many important players are building dedicated infrastructure from scratch.
Standardization as a means of innovation
Is there any opportunity for joy when it comes to this sort of news? For a long time now, calling telecom giants “adverse to innovation” has been somewhat of an understatement. It makes sense to be skeptical about it, but we're optimistic.
That's because telecom giants need standardization, convergence, interoperability and scrutiny when it comes to security and safety. Some of these needs aren't really inherent (and many commercial players in the telecom field abhor them), but they're dictated by regulatory bodies and there is no way around them. Others are necessary precautions; when deploying millions of devices, security flaws or electrical safety hazards aren't just legitimate concerns, they're potential PR disasters and unrecoverable financial crises. Large-scale deployment tends to come with a greater degree of responsibility (if also with greater bureaucracy) in heavily-regulated fields; more responsibility is always welcome, in any field, even if it comes with some strings attached.