How will the next billion web users affect your IoT strategy?
From a concrete slab amid a field of parched grass near Adama, Ethiopia, rises a pole with a trio of spinning cups and an arm holding what looks like a stack of saucers. An automated weather station, it silently goes about its business day in and day out, recording and wirelessly transmitting temperature, humidity, wind, and precipitation measurements. Not very significant, on the face of it.
But a network of such weather stations working together can dramatically improve farmers’ lives. The data gathered allows crop insurers to price risk, which in turn allows banks to offer the farmers loans. Those loans give farmers access to capital for machinery, fertilizer, and seeds, greatly improving their productivity and transforming their families’ lives.
“A small investment can have an insane multiplier effect,” says Ethiopia-born Sarah Mencker, founder and CEO of agricultural information company Gro Intelligence.
Similar innovations are disrupting countless other corners of the global economy. That's because the universe of Internet-connected sensors, appliances, and other electronic devices that make up the Internet of Things (IoT) is expected to overtake mobile phones by 2018 and hit a total of 16 billion connected devices by 2021. In recent years, it's become increasingly feasible to extend IoT coverage to remote, sparsely populated regions such as Adama.
A small investment can have an insane multiplier effect
The sheer power and size of this global machine-to-machine network will have a transformative potential whose dimensions can now only be guessed at. “When you mix that with emerging cloud technologies and machine learning, it presents lots of new business opportunities,” Matt Grob, chief technology officer at mobile chip maker Qualcomm, said in a presentation at Quartz’s Next Billion conference in San Francisco recently.
That means any digital transformation strategy will need to embrace not only the next billion customers to go online, but also the billions more devices that will be joining them there. How will the next billion Internet users affect your enterprise’s current IoT strategy? Here’s what you need to know.
IOT gets massive
The IoT of tomorrow won’t just be larger; it will also be more capable, thanks to the next generation of cellular technology, 5G, which will start rolling out by 2019 and be in full effect by 2020. “5G will allow us to realize the promise of massive IoT,” says Grob. “In the 5G world, we’ll be able to go to literally trillions of devices around the world, where every single device that has any kind of function, consumes a resource, or can have its performance measured can now be connected.”
In part, 5G will catalyze the growth of IoT because it will allow users to customize their connections to the type of data flow they require. A device like an automated, remote weather station might only need to send a few bytes of data every few hours, whereas streaming 8K video requires far greater throughput. The data package for each would be priced for exactly the required specifications and no more. Simple devices could send “small amounts of data far more efficiently,” Grob says. “That will allow us to gather data continuously, and that creates lots of potential to increase the efficiency of systems.”
Such price flexibility will drive down costs and make it economical to connect many more devices than is feasible today. As a result, innovative solutions will push out into remote and rugged regions of the developing world where many of the next billion users live. Companies that want to ride this wave will need to adapt their product offerings to meet the needs of these customers.
“Not...all products developed in the U.S. fit all markets outside the U.S.,” says Mencker. “Think of something that’s embedded with a series of sensors, like a weather station. If you take models that have been developed for the United States and put them in India and Africa, most of them won’t withstand the environment.”
Lane change ahead
Many of the changes ushered in by the IoT will involve simply doing the same things we do today, but faster and more reliably. Take vehicle-to-vehicle communication, for example. In a broad sense, we've had that for decades. When a driver puts her foot on the brake pedal, she causes a tail light to turn on. Drivers behind her can see and react to that signal by braking as well. The process works but is inherently slow. Even if you take out human reaction time and fallibility, an incandescent light bulb can take 100 milliseconds or more to turn on, Grob says. "That could be up to 12 feet at highway speeds.”
With wireless IoT, cars can instantaneously alert all surrounding vehicles to present dangers. Each can then take appropriate action, for instance, by automatically braking even before the driver has time to react. When you consider that there were 35,000 fatalities on U.S. roads last year, and a million worldwide, that kind of marginal improvement can have real impact on public safety.
IoT will get really exciting when it comes to second-order effects. Going forward, IoT technology will mature alongside advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence. Cars won’t just be able to figure out when to brake, but will know how to get from A to B completely on their own. Full autonomy won’t just change how well a car does its job; it will fundamentally change what a car is, says Benedict Evans, a partner at venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.
Evans believes that autonomous cars will disrupt transportation as much as the original introduction of the automobile did—perhaps more so. “You have no more insurance, no more parking, no more traffic congestion," he says. "If your commute is currently an hour in traffic and you change to a fully autonomous world, the same road will be lined with cars that are moving 75 or 100 miles per hour, three feet apart, with no congestion. So questions of commuting, real estate, housing—all of these things start getting turned upside down.”
Cars are just one example. Every product that winds up being wired into the IoT could generate similar second-order effects. Factor in pre-existing cultural differences that already exist in the world of the next billion (such as the suspicion of colonialism that fueled a backlash against Facebook's Free Basics plan in India) and the fact that the new technology will be absorbed without the intermediate steps experienced in the West, and the rate of disruption could be explosive. For companies looking to pioneer new solutions, that’s exciting. “We expect new innovations we can’t even see today,” Grob says. For those that don’t plan aggressively for the coming changes, the future looks scary. They could go the way of the carriage maker.
Security is not an afterthought
Cyber security will be a major concern in the world of 5G-enabled IoT. “It’s no longer an afterthought,” Grob said in his talk at the Next Billion event. His words proved prescient. Eight days later, a massive distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack was launched on Dyn, an Internet infrastructure company in New Hampshire. The attack temporarily shut down a huge swathe of the web, crippling traffic in the eastern United States and then spreading to other parts of the country and Europe. The bulk of the attacks came from IoT devices that had been commandeered by hackers.
In the aftermath, it emerged that most of the devices originated from a single supplier in China. In an effort to cut costs, the company had spent little effort hack-proofing its products.
“Long term, we need to build an Internet that is resilient against attacks like this,” security expert Bruce Schneier wrote on Motherboard. “In the meantime, you can expect more attacks that leverage insecure IoT devices.”
The attack was yet another reminder that while the Internet can yield tremendous rewards, it can bite those who aren’t prepared for every contingency. This will be exponentially more true of the larger, more sophisticated and more powerful IoT of tomorrow. Today, a toaster, an engine sensor, a weather station on a remote African farm; tomorrow, everything, everywhere. The time to get ready is now.
The next billion: Lessons for leaders
- The arrival of 5G technology will radically enable the Internet of Things, making it possible to connect exponentially more devices.
- The IoT will give rise to new industries and ways of doing business, which in turn will require IT solutions that we can’t even imagine today.
- IoT devices conceived in and engineered for the developed world may need to be significantly modified in order to be suitable for the world of the next billion users.
- Cyber security will be a critical concern.