The Race for Small Data in the Internet of Things

The wireless world is all about speed and quantity. The evolution of wireless networks is the history of trying to transmit ever- greater quantities of data at faster speeds. It was once viewed as revolutionary that suitcase-size “mobile” phones could make poor-quality voice calls without wires.

Now, with the latest 4G cellular networks, we can access the internet, communicate with the world, and watch the latest videos over our svelte smartphones.

And, the new 5G networks on the horizon promise speeds measured in multiple gigabits per second, latency in the single-digit milliseconds, and the capacity to handle 1,000 times more consumption than current network technologies. Industry pundits predict that 5G promises to bring the Internet of Things (IoT) world alive, enabling new IoT opportunities such as robotics and autonomous vehicles.

This exciting new future for mobile networks may be great for data-hungry smartphone users and “sexy” new IoT applications, but the majority of IoT applications are pretty pedestrian, or, as some might say, old school. From a network connectivity perspective, this huge body of sensors transmits very little data at slow rates.

Moisture sensors buried in farmers’ fields indicate when they need to be irrigated, trash bins communicate whether they need to be emptied, and embedded parking sensors indicate when a parking spot is available. Most of these sensors don’t have ready access to power, so they need to have very low-power consumption to ensure that their batteries last for years.

Do you really want to be ripping up agricultural fields or water distribution networks every couple of months to replace batteries? While the high-speed world of futuristic IoT applications sounds exciting, it is really this mass of connected “small data” sensors that is truly going to deliver on the social and economic promise of the IoT revolution.

The problem is how to effectively connect this “small data” IoT world. Cellular networks have been fantastic for creating our wireless world but they are not very well adapted for much of the IoT world. These networks and devices consume a fair bit of power, they are costly to build and operate, they have a fair bit of unnecessary technology overhead, and their coverage is typically confined to areas populated by people, not necessarily sensors. The race is now on to deliver alternative, better-suited networks to the rapidly growing “small data” IoT connected world.

There are currently three network technologies vying to connect the small data world. All of these networks cover wide areas (up to 30 kilometers and more per base station), require very low power (the batteries of attached devices can last for years), and transmit very low amounts of data (10–100 bytes) at slow speeds. SigFox is a French company that uses proprietary technology to build and operate its own networks, selling access to IoT users. SigFox currently claims the world’s largest IoT network, covering much of Europe and Australia, and has ambitious plans to blanket the U.S. LoRa is an alliance of manufacturers, vendors, and operators who collaborate to create an open, global standard and certification process. Operators, enterprises, and others can use their certified equipment to build and operate their own LoRa network. Lastly, the GSMA, the association that represents the world’s cellular operators and vendors, has been frantically working with the global standards body to create the yet-to-be-released Narrow-Band IoT (NB-IoT), which will be compatible with current cellular standards and deployments.

The world’s mobile operators are in a precarious position; they know that wireless connectivity is essential to the IoT revolution but recognize that their bread-and-butter cellular networks will only take them so far. They also need to be able to connect the small data IoT world. Despite unclear business cases, operators around the world are launching these alternative IoT networks using one of the three network technologies. While it is not yet obvious how they will make money, besides the very low access fees, they recognize that there is a “land grab” happening that will define who will connect the small data IoT world.

It is not certain which technologies or which providers will win in the race to connect the small data world. Nonetheless, it is certain that the small data world is the backbone of the IoT revolution and without effectively connecting this world, the revolution will never be realized.

This article first appeared in the Summer issue of Big Data Quarterly Magazine

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


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