The Battle for IoT Connectivity

Amazon EchoThere is a major battle brewing for control of the connections that control the Internet of Things. Today in the early stage of home IoT most devices are being connected using WiFi. But there is going to be a huge push to have connection instead made through 5G cellular.

I saw an article this week where Qualcomm said that they were excited about 5G and that it would be a world-changing technology. The part of 5G that they are most excited about is the possibility of using 5G to connect IoT devises together. Qualcomm’s CEO Stephen Mollenkopf talked about 5G at the recent CES show and talked about a future where 5G is used for live-streaming virtual reality, autonomous cars and connected cities where street lamps are networked together.

Of course, Qualcomm and the cellular vendors are most interested in the potential for making money using 5G technology. Qualcomm wants to make the hundreds of millions of chips they envision in a 5G connected world. And Verizon and AT&T want to sell data connections to all of the 5G connected devices. It’s an interesting vision of the world. Some of that vision makes sense and 5G is the obvious way to connect outdoors for things like street lights.

But it’s not obvious to me at this early stage of IoT that either 5G or WiFi are the obvious winner of the battle for IoT connectivity in the home. There are pros and cons for each technology.

WiFi has an upper hand today because it’s already in almost every home. People are comfortable using WiFi because it doesn’t cost anything extra to connect an IoT device. But WiFi has some natural limitations that might make it a harder choice in the future if our homes get filled with IoT devices. As I’ve discussed in some recent blogs, the way that WiFi shares data can be a big problem when there is a lot of steady and continuous demand for the bandwidth. WiFi is probably a great choice for IoT devices that only occasionally need to make a connection or that need short-burst connections to share information.

But the WiFi standard doesn’t include quality of service and any prioritization of which connections are the most important. WiFi instead always does its best to share bandwidth, regardless of the number of devices that are asking to connect to it. When a WiFi router gets multiple demands it shuts down for a short period and then tries to reinitiate connections again. If too many devices are demanding connection, a WiFi system goes into a mode of continuously stopping and restarting and none of the connections get a satisfactory connection. Even if there is enough bandwidth in the network to handle most of the requests, too many simultaneous requests simply blows the brains out of WiFi. The consequence for this is that having a lot of small and inconsequential connections can ruin the important connections like video streaming or gaming.

But cellular data is also not an automatic answer. Certainly today there is no way to cope with IoT using 4G cellular networks. Each cell site has a limited number of connections. A great example of this is that I often talk to a buddy of mine in DC while he commutes, and he usually loses his cellular signal when crossing the between Maryland and Virginia. This is due to there not being enough cellular connections available in the limited area of the American Legion bridge. 5G will supposedly solve this problem and promises to expand the number of connections from a cell site by a factor of 50 times or so – meaning that there will be a lot more possible connections. But you still have to wonder if that will be sufficient in a world when every IoT device wants a connection. LG just announced that every appliance it sells will now come with an IoT connection, and I imagine this will soon be true of all appliances, toys and almost anything else you buy in the future that has any electronics.

Of a bigger concern to me is that 5G connections are not going to be free. With WiFi, once I’ve bought my home broadband connection I can add devices at will (until I overload my router). But I think Verizon and AT&T are excited about IoT because they want to charge a small monthly fee for every device you connect through them. It may not be a lot – perhaps a dollar per device per month – but the next thing you know every home will be sending then an additional $50 or more per month to keep IoT devices connected. It’s no wonder they are salivating at the possibility. And it’s no wonder that the big cable companies are talking about buying T-Mobile.

I’m also concerned from a security perspective of sending the data from all of my IoT devices to the same core routers at Verizon or AT&T. Since it’s likely that the recent privacy rules for broadband will be overturned or weakened, I am concerned about having one company know so much about me. If I use a WiFi network my feeds will still go out through my data ISP, but if I’m concerned about security I can encrypt my network and make it harder for them to know what I’m doing. That is going to be impossible to do with a cellular connection.

But one thing is for sure and this is going to be a huge battle. And it’s likely to be fought behind the scenes as the cellular companies try to make deals with device manufacturers to use 5G instead of WiFi. WiFi has the early lead today and it’s still going to be a while until there are functional 5G cellular networks. But once those are in place it’s going to be a war worth watching.

The Latest Boxes and Gear

roku-3-2I’ve been seeing a lot of interesting product announcements recently.

4K Settop Boxes. Both DirecTV and Comcast have announced new 4K settop boxes. AT&T subsequently said that DirectTV and U-Verse would be using the same settop box going forward. DirecTV was the first major company to release a 4K box, but their first version required a customer to have a Samsung smart TV. The new box is being called the 4K Genie Mini and is the size of a paperback book. DirectTV does not yet have any channels dedicated to 4K although they probably will later this year.

Comcast also launched 4K TV last year and their first box also only worked with Samsung TVs, but the new box should work with any 4K capable television. Both of these announcements continue the trend of large ISPs developing their own proprietary boxes rather than buying off the shelf from the normal industry vendors.

Around 15% of new televisions sold now have 4K capabilities and smaller cable providers are going to have to decide if they want to support 4K programming. The new settop boxes represent a new capital outlay, but the real issue with 4K is that the channels eat up a lot bandwidth in a network and will require upgrades at the headend.

Over-the-air Tuner. Microsoft recently launched an Xbox One Digital TV tuner that will work with its game console. This means that an Xbox owner can use their game console along with an HDTV antenna to receive local programming directly through their game platform. The platform allows for multiple options such as watching TV and gaming at the same time. There is also a built-in channel guide, giving this the feeling of being a basic cable offering. I look at this as just one more tool making it easier for people to cut the cord.

Google’s Wireless Router. Google has released its WiFi router they call the OnHub to the general public for $199. This is a high quality WiFi router as well as a platform for integrating IoT devices within the home. The box supports WiFi as well as Bluetooth, Smart Ready, Weave, and 802.15.4, making it ready to talk to most Internet of Things devices.

Early reviews say it’s a great WiFi router that gives a user easier accessibility than many other routers, particular those from cable companies that are black boxes to the consumer. But the real promise is that the device also will provide a base for talking to a wide variety of off-the-shelf IoT devices that you might want to integrate into your house. This is obviously a play for Google to become the standard for home networking of devices.

Very Thin TV. LG this year released a TV screen that is only four hundredths of an inch thick. A 55 inch TV at this thickness only weighs about 4 pounds. It’s so thin and light that it can be hung on the wall with magnetic fasteners and peeled off like a sticker. The TV uses organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) which can produce sufficient bright light only one layer thick. This is the first use for OLEDs I’ve seen outside of cellphone screens.

This is the first look at a whole new generation of TVs that can go anywhere and be of almost any size. Want a TV in the bathroom? No problem. Put one in the garage? Not an issue.

And, finally, some statistics for you.

OTT Streaming Devices. At the end of 2014 Roku was still the most popular OTT streaming box with 37% of the market. Chromecast came in second with 19% of the market. Amazon Fire had climbed to 17% of the market while Apple TV fell to fourth at about 14% of the market. These four products represented 86% of the total market.

A little over 20% of US homes now have a streaming device. Another large chunk of the market is relying on smart TVs.

Something New

500px-LG_Logo_svgI often report on new scientific breakthroughs, but today’s blog is about a few new technological applications that will benefit our industry.  I rarely go a day without seeing some new innovation, and I thought the following were the most interesting ones I’ve seen lately.

First, Apple is working on a fuel cell for portable devices. This would be a big breakthrough for laptops, tablets and other sizable portable devices because fuel cells have some distinct advantages over the batteries we use today. For one thing, the fuel generating chemicals in a fuel cell can be refilled and so the battery could theoretically be kept going for a long time.

This is important because laptop batteries today are considered as toxic waste. Fuel cells would cut down on pollution by eliminating some of the nastier metals used in today’s batteries. By  lasting longer they would cut down on the huge number of batteries we are burning through as a society. For instance Apple could develop a universal tablet battery that you would keep as you move through newer generations of devices. Our devices today are not particularly green and disposing of our devices is creating a challenge for landfills and groundwater, mostly due to the batteries. So the small fuel cells will be a big step towards greener devices.

Next, the Korean manufacturer LG has announced a TV screen that can be rolled up like a poster. There have been flexible TVs around for a few years, but LG has made a screen that can be rolled up into a 1.5 inch tube. This will drastically change the supply chain for TVs. They are expensive today to ship and store due to the large sizes and they often get damaged in transit. But TVs this flexible can be sent by UPS in a tube.

The LG technology can also produce transparent TVs. This opens up a whole new world of applications for TVs and monitors. For instance you could put TVs on bathroom mirrors to watch while you brush your teeth. They could go on any window or on any wall and would disappear when not being used as TVs. I remember reading science fiction books many years ago that predicted that there would be TVs everywhere in the future, and with this technology that might be finally possible. These screens also advance the trend for separating the TV electronics from the screens. We will be able to put screens anywhere controlled by the same centralized smart box.

LG says they will be able to make a transparent 60-inch flexible TV capable of 4K quality by 2017. But the promise of this technology is not just for giant TVs, but also for little TVs screens that can be put anywhere – in the bathroom, kitchen, shop, garage – wherever somebody wants to watch a screen. The biggest outcome of cheap TVs everywhere would be an explosion in the demand for bandwidth. It’s not hard to picture households wanting to have ten football games on at the same time on Sundays.

Google has announced a new feature for Android that allows devices in proximity to each other to automatically connect. They are calling this technology Nearby. Any device using this technology would seek out and find any other nearby devices and would connect to enable communication. This has a lot of applications. For example, when friends or family meet their phones could automatically synch up and update calendars or whatever else they want to share.  This technology might be the platform to let stores contact shoppers as they pass through the store to offer specials or point out items of interest. And for the Internet of Things this is a handy way to make the smartphone the controller of other devises. Whenever you walk into a room in your house your phone would be instantly talking to all of the Nearby devices there.

Nearby would do this by automatically turning on the Bluetooth, WiFi and microphones as needed. There are some privacy concerns about this capability and certainly there will be apps to let each user set the degree to which they are willing to be open to others, and to also control who might be able to connect to you. But Google is counting on most people wanting to have an interactive shopping experience and that is probably what they see as the biggest commercial application of the technology. Google has been looking for a way to compete with Amazon in he shopping arena, and this might be that platform. Where Amazon dominates the online shopping experience Google could come to dominate the in-store shopping experience.