Tag Archives: iot

Five consumer technology challenges will decide who owns the future

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Vegas cocktail

The innovation capital of Earth is Las Vegas for the coming week, as hundreds of thousands of technology makers and breakers, and buyers and sellers converge on the event formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show. Most of what’s on display is as boringly mainstream as clock radios and console televisions were at the first CES in 1967.

But there will be a handful of technologies and prototypes amidst the chaos that will offer clues to what our world will be in 2067, and that’s what I’ll be looking for…

  • New smartphone form factors – It’s an accident of history that networked, pocket-sized super computers are called phones. Advances in materials science and chipmaking will enable a breakout from the rigid rectangle that’s restrained the design of these truly personal computers since the introduction of the iPhone. Flexible screens are only the first step.

  • Handsfree interfaces – As the shape of mobile technology changes, so will the way data goes back and forth between people and machines. Voice recognition is good, but a faster, more discreet input method – just think? – is necessary. So is an alternative to transferring visual information via a flat, handheld screen. Forget about the demise of Moore’s law and fears of artificial intelligence. The human body is technology’s most intractable constraint.

  • Ingestibles and Implantables – The inner world of the human body is next level in general interface development and, specifically, personal health monitoring and maintenance. Getting there requires more discipline and regulatory aptitude than we’re used to seeing in the tech world, but the first glimmer of bio-adapted products are starting to appear. Real time, full body monitoring and analysis will be wonderfully disruptive to the medical industry. The big prize is faster and truer links between the biological and digital realms.

  • Personal transportation – From electric scooters to self driving cars to Elon Musk’s tunnels and hyperloops, a once-in-a-century transportation revolution is slowly coming to a boil. Part technology, part business model and part policy, this revolution will make snapshots of jammed streets and highways as quaint as horse and buggy daguerreotypes. Most of the pieces are already on the table. We’re just waiting for someone to put the puzzle together.

  • Power – The ultimate energy storage and charging solutions have yet to appear. A couple of wireless charging gizmos have been touted in the run up to CES, but so far there hasn’t been any movement toward an industry standard. Once we have the wireless equivalent of USB charging and power cells with the energy density of a tank of gas, for both low and high voltage devices, the market for wearables and Internet of things/home automation products will explode, and the adoption rate of electric vehicles, of all kinds, will hit escape velocity.

There are two more items on the list and always present at CES: the unknown and the unexpected. The challenge is to know it when you see it. Wish me luck.

FCC wants to open 1,200 MHz of spectrum to unlicensed users, and that’s a lot

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The Federal Communications Commission is considering a radical overhaul of the way licensed spectrum is managed, and shared with unlicensed users. Besides upping the stakes for wireless Internet service providers this week, the FCC began considering a plan to open up a massive 1,200 MHz slice of spectrum in the 6 GHz range to WiFi, Internet of things (IoT) and other new and unlicensed uses.

It’s a lot of bandwidth. The 2.4 GHz band originally used for WiFi is only 83 MHz wide, and the newer 5 GHz band is 150 MHz.

Two methods are proposed. In 850 MHz of sub-bands assigned to “fixed” uses, where transmitters and receivers stay in one place – links between TV studios and transmitters, for example – unlicensed users would be able to transmit at standard power levels, so long as they avoid interfering with license holders, via a hardware-based coordination system yet to be established. There are a lot of details to be worked out, but the idea is that unlicensed equipment would be automatically prevented from interfering with a nearby, licensed user.

A similar system is in place for coordinating fringe frequencies – aka white space – assigned to TV stations, and another is specced for managing wireless broadband service in the 3.5 GHz band, but neither involve the huge swath of spectrum in the 6 MHz plan.

Other sub-bands – a total of 350 MHz – are assigned to transmitters that move around, such as TV news trucks. Coordination would be too complicated. Unlicensed users in those ranges would be restricted to low power, indoor equipment – WiFi or Bluetooth for example – that couldn’t, or shouldn’t, cause interference.

The FCC and its predecessor, the Federal Radio Commission, have been setting aside bands for particular purposes, and giving exclusive licenses for specific frequencies in those bands to individual users for 90 years. It made sense in the analog era. But the widespread adoption of digital transmission technology changed the game. The same bandwidth that was needed to broadcast one low definition, analog television channel can support many high definition, digital ones.

And television is just one example. Existing users in the 6 MHz band include utilities, railroads and telecoms companies. With digital technology, they don’t need anywhere near the amount of spectrum they now control. At least not to do the same things they were doing in the analog days. Arguably, they can do more now, and often need to, but technology has come a long way: spectrum sharing is technically feasible. The FCC has to figure out the best way to implement it, so no great harm is done, but it is doing the right thing.

California IoT law requires manufacturers to build security into connected devices

by Steve Blum • , , ,

A pair of linked bills passed by the California legislature and signed into law late last month by governor Jerry Brown require manufacturers to preload passwords or install other security features on any kind of device that’s directly or indirectly connected to the Internet, beginning in 2020. Assembly bill 1906, carried by assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin (D – Ventura) and senate bill 327, authored by senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (D – Santa Barbara) are aimed at protecting privacy, and preventing the rise of botnets – networks of online devices that are infected with malware and used by cybercriminals for their own purposes.

The new law isn’t limited to consumer electronics products. Commercial and industrial devices – anything that’s part of the Internet of Things (IoT) – fall under the legislation’s broadband definition…

“Connected device” means any device, or other physical object that is capable of connecting to the Internet, directly or indirectly, and that is assigned an Internet Protocol address or Bluetooth address.

Manufacturers will have to equip a device with “a reasonable security feature” that’s “appropriate” to its “nature and function” and the type of information it collects. Preprogrammed passwords are specifically mentioned as acceptable, as is forcing users to create a password or otherwise “generate a new means of authentication” the first time they use it.

Enforcement of the new law is limited to the attorney general, county district attorneys and city and county attorneys. It doesn’t create a new windfall for contingency fee lawyers.

Up until now, California law hasn’t had much to say about IoT security. A law passed in 2015 requires warnings on Internet-connected television sets with voice recognition features, and prohibits using recorded conversations for advertising purposes. A 2006 bill established similar consumer notice requirements for WiFi access points.

A third IoT-related bill – AB 2167 by assemblyman Ed Chau (D – Los Angeles) – died in the California senate on the final day of the legislative session. It was specifically aimed at “ingestible” sensors used for health monitoring.

Fresno County grower quantifies IoT ag tech benefit

by Steve Blum • , , ,

An agricultural technology experiment is underway in Reedley, in Fresno County. Fybr, a low power wireless networking company, is working with DaCapo Agricultural Corporation to determine whether Internet of things (IoT) enabled soil and temperature sensors and irrigation controls produce a real benefit, and if so, how much. So far, the answer is yes and significantly.

Fybr installed water, moisture and temperature sensors at different depths in the ground and temperature sensors in the canopy of a dozen plum and grape orchards, and flow monitors and valves in irrigation pipes. Those were linked back to an Alexa-enabled, voice activated control system via Fybr’s low power, low bit rate wireless network. It’s based on the LoRa standard and uses Semtech chips, but Fybr made its own, proprietary modifications to reduce the amount of energy consumed – the target is ten years between battery changes.

This system allowed them to do two things: determine how much water was being wasted due to saturated soil or because it was simply percolating beyond the reach of the roots, and control the temperature of the trees and vines by spraying water to cool them down or prevent freezing.

The full results won’t be ready until after the current growing season, but a comparison of preliminary data with adjacent control blocks indicates that the level of overwatering had been in 30% to 40% range. Heat-related losses during harvesting dropped from $2 million two years ago to zero this year. It appears that granular temperature control mitigated a risk factor that averages about 20% of value per year.

Smart city infrastructure, and not ag tech, is Fybr’s main line of business. The company says it has smart parking systems deployed in a handful of U.S. cities (and one in India), including San Francisco, and is expanding its range of urban applications to include water/waste water system and environmental monitoring.

Cable industry prepares for open competition in IoT services

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Open source and cable industry are terms seldom found in the same sentence. But that’s about to change and it might be a very big deal indeed. CableLabs is the jointly funded, common technical development organisation for the cable industry, worldwide. Its crown jewel is the twenty year old DOCSIS standard, which is the engine that drives data delivery over hybrid fiber-coax systems in the U.S., and most of the the rest of the world. Although widely adopted, it is proprietary to CableLabs and its members – you have to pay for privilege of using it, and you pretty much have to follow the specs as given.

It’s taken a radically different approach to low power, wireless Internet of Things technology, though. There are several solutions kicking around, including the LoRa Alliance, SigFox and an adaptation of LTE technology. CableLabs has chosen LoRa, which takes a similar approach to licensing and certification as the WiFi Alliance. Its not free or open source, but it is a widely available radio frequency (RF) platform that’s optimised for particular kinds of applications: low power, battery-operated devices that need to send signals relatively long distances, say a kilometer or two in cities, and 10 or 20 kilometers in rural areas.

CableLabs developed key layers that sit on top of this basic, RF pathway and handle the actual exchange of data and management of devices in the field. Instead of limiting the use of the technology to its member cable companies, CableLabs has posted the source code and offered it to all comers for free on GitHub, under the very permissive terms of the MIT open source license.

The reason is straightforward, according to Daryl Malas, the principal architect of CableLabs’ advanced technology group

[Low power wide area networks] need to be deployed broadly across national and international regions. This will enable the use of many sensors across these same regions. As we make use of the sensor data, it will enrich our lives with information to make better choices, ensure higher quality results and guide us towards a better future. By making a portion of this network available for open-source, our goal is to lower the barrier for the cable industry and other industry participants to enable these solutions for consumers and governments.

Interoperability and easy access to big data streams will drive IoT business models. CableLabs is giving its cable industry members a shot at owning a big chunk of that market by putting them at the center of what it hopes will be a well-populated ecosystem.

Verizon fires up mid-tier IoT network

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Making good on a promise, Verizon says it is rolling out wireless Internet of things (IoT) service nationally. During the CTIA show in Las Vegas last year, a Verizon representative said that the LTE M1 standard would be deployed throughout its U.S. network by April. Verizon beat that deadline by a day, saying in a press release that as of yesterday, it was launching…

The first nationwide commercial 4G LTE Category M1 (or Cat M1) network, which spans 2.4 million square miles. This is the first and only Cat M1 network providing scale, coverage and security for customers seeking wireless access solutions for IoT. Verizon’s Cat M1 network is built on a virtualized cloud environment which enables rapid and agile IoT solution deployment and nationwide scaling aimed at increasing IoT adoption for developers and businesses with new and more economical IoT data plans.

Service pricing starts at $2 for 200 KB per month, and scales up to $80 for 10 GB. IoT – also known as machine-to-machine or M2M – applications can be very parsimonious with bandwidth, so the low end package could be enough to support basic functionality for, say, an environmental monitor or on/off control for remote devices such as security lights or a heating/cooling system.

LTE M1 technology is a cut down version of regular LTE. The next rev will be the LTE NB1 standard – NB as in narrow band – which will be aimed at the ultra low power, ultra low bandwidth end of the market that’s currently targeted by the LoRa and Sigfox systems.

M1 equipment needs to be plugged in or recharged relatively frequently, ultra low power/bandwidth devices are designed to run off a small battery for a year or more. Both standards will find uses. For example, it might make perfect sense to pay $2 a month to control an electric irrigation pump with an always-available M1 connection, but the thousand or so soil and temperature sensors scattered around a field that support that pump can get by with much cheaper occasional 12 byte bursts, the kind of payloads that the ultra-low systems can deliver.

NB1 deployments could begin this year, but are more likely to go mainstream in 2018.

SigFox plans California ag tech IoT network build out

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Small bursts of data at infrequent intervals are sufficient for many Internet of Things (IoT) applications. That’s as true in the agricultural technology sector as it is for urban uses, such as meter reading or environmental monitoring. AgTech, though, brings its own challenges and advantages to the party. On the one hand, there are fewer obstructions to block or attenuate wireless signals and spectrum tends to be less crowded. On the other, electrical power is often scarce and the realities of farming mean that anything you put in the ground often has to be temporary – fields are constantly being plowed up and replanted.

SigFox, a France-based company, is starting to expand its North American low power, wide area IoT network into rural areas. As with LoRa Alliance, which has a similar business model and technology, Sigfox is using unlicensed frequencies in the 900 MHz industrial (ISM) band to deliver very small data payloads – 12 bytes – to and from low power devices that can run off of batteries, in some cases for years. It claims to be operating in 24 countries – four of those with nationwide coverage – and supporting seven million devices.

Ramzi Alharayeri, SigFox’s San Francisco-based sales and business development director, talked about network build out plans and some of the agricultural applications they’re supporting at the Salinas AgTech meet up earlier this month. Irrigation control, soil monitoring and livestock tracking are among the services that partner companies offer – SigFox is a network operator, not a direct IoT service provider or equipment manufacturer itself.

So far, SigFox has a limited footprint in California. It’s built a network in San Francisco and surrounding areas, and has done some pilot projects in the north bay area. It hasn’t done a full scale rural deployment in the U.S. yet, but it’s looking at options for doing so.

Salinas Valley preps for IoT development wave

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Middle mile infrastructure is improving in the Salinas valley, with a quantum shift due early next year. That’s expected to help improve poor last mile broadband access, at least when compared to what the average California can expect to get. In a nutshell, that was the message I delivered to the Salinas AgTech meet up last week. You can download the presentation here.

The evening’s program was about broadband resources that could be available to support the development and deployment of Internet of things (IoT) applications, services and products in the region. The Salinas Valley is one of the world’s highest producing agricultural areas, and is just an hour’s drive south of Silicon Valley. Well, okay, it’s an hour when the traffic cooperates, which is not always a good bet. But even so, it’s close enough to make it the logical go-to development bed for agriculture-focused technology.

IoT will play a big role in the future of agriculture in California. All the talk about broadband gaps notwithstanding, water is the one absolutely critical – and desperately scarce – resource here. IoT can help manage it intelligently, both directly via increasingly granular and situationally aware irrigation control, and indirectly by reducing wasted or ill-timed production. And that’s just one aspect of IoT’s agricultural potential.

By the end of March, an open access fiber route – built by Sunesys with a grant from the California Public Utilities Commission – will connect the lower half of the valley to dark fiber that stretches back to heart of Silicon Valley. Besides improving retail broadband services for consumers and small businesses, it will also support the growth of high capacity, industrial class connections which can serve major agribusiness operations as well as the kind of low power, low bit rate wireless networks that will make widespread deployment of IoT technology feasible in the fields.

Smart policy has to lead smart technology to make a smart city

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Nobody knows what a smart city is. Or rather, everybody defines smart city differently, depending on individual goals: it’s a means to an end.

For equipment makers and service providers, a city is smart if it buys their stuff. To a network operator, a smart city is one that hangs that stuff, whatever it might be, on its network. On the private sector side, the smart city vision is marketing driven and has a distinctly vertical focus – there was little or no interest in horizontal integration on display at the smart city panel sessions I sat in on at the CTIA show in Las Vegas last week.

One critical missing item was thoughtful discussion of interoperability between like-to-like services or interconnection of competing networks. Another was an independent, open source operating platform that ties vertical applications together, and serves as a portal to open data that anyone can put to use. Vendors will try to make their own products work together, and network operators will do what is practicable to accomodate as many applications and devices as possible, but that’s as far as it goes. Or at least as far as the couple dozen companies that took part in the CTIA sessions I saw, or presented at the Telit conference the day before, will go.

It’ll take more to than just deploying remote sensors and controls by the truckload to make a city smart. The first question that needs to be answered is what do you hope to accomplish? With the exception of the panel that included two prominent big city mayors and a state CIO, that question was ignored at the CTIA show.

But even they spoke in terms of specific policy objectives – focused goals like traffic signal optimisation or broad issues like violence reduction.

A truly smart city will be one where data, devices and services are melded together to deliver services and improve living standards in a cost effective manner. It can’t be done ad hoc, though. When cities are the customers, policy has to come before technology.

New network standards fuel Verizon IoT push

by Steve Blum • , , ,

U.S. mobile carriers will offer specialised Internet of things (IoT) services in a big way next year. Some of the motivation is competitive, the result of pressure from companies using unlicensed spectrum, but it seems to be mostly the result of new technology protocols for the LTE standard that support IoT applications and, critically, business cases.

Verizon announced its plans for full, nationwide deployment of a key IoT standard by April 2017 at the Telit IoT Innovation conference in Las Vegas yesterday. Erik Varney, senior manager of IoT consulting at Verizon Wireless, said that their network will be upgraded to support the LTE category M1 protocol, which supports low bandwidth applications running on low power equipment, on licensed spectrum. As the table above shows, the M1 standard falls midway between the conventional LTE standard and the more aggressive LTE NB1 (for narrow band) which is optimised for fixed, very low power IoT devices for applications with very low bandwidth needs.

One question yet to be fully answered is how much will it cost? During audience Q&A, Varney said that Verizon is becoming more flexible and moving away from traditional mobile phone data plans, but more work is needed on the network side too: pricing models are, to a degree, a function of a network designed to support high priority, high priority communications on demand – 911 calls, for example – but IoT applications often involve intermittent, non-time sensitive transmission of a few bytes of data.

Ken Bednasz, vice president of application engineering at Telit (and the guy who presented the table above), pointed to 2018 as the time frame for IoT-optimised protocols, which were released earlier this year, to be in full, mass market deployment in the U.S. Cat M1 technology will come first and NB1-based systems, which he described as being better suited to new market segments, following.