It’s not clear where the trillions of dollars the Internet of Things is supposed to add to the global economy will come from, but it’s clear where quite a lot of the money will go: to cell-phone carriers.
By connecting collections of Things to the Internet across distances too long for built-in Bluetooth, WiFi or other wireless connections, cellular network providers will be able to scoop up as much as 60 percent of the money spent to network smart devices between 2013 and 2018, according to ABI Research.
By 2020 the number of smart environmental sensors, building-automation controls, autonomous-vehicle self-diagnostics and other devices with enough intelligence to communicate independently with other machines making up the Internet of Things (IoT) will number close to 30 billion, according to estimates from Gartner, McKinsey Global Institute, and other analyst firms.
The intelligence inside those devices will allow humans much greater remote control over their facilities, computer systems and almost anything else big enough to contain a processor and communications software, according to Cisco Systems, Inc., which estimates the “Internet of Everything” will include 50 billion devices instead of 30 billion and contribute $14.4 trillion to the global economy by 2022, rather than the $1.9 trillion by 2020 that Gartner projects.
Cisco also placed the greatest value on the Machine-to-Machine (M2M) communications networks that will tie together all those smart-ish devices, rather than on the functions of IoT devices themselves.
Networks connecting previously standalone devices do, indeed, hold the greatest promise of future profits, but not for network-equipment vendors such as Cisco or manufacturers of intelligent Things, according to data from ABI’s M2M Services and Modules service. The greatest value – the area from which someone can squeeze the most profits regardless of the resulting benefit or technological advancement – will go to cellular network service providers that can make long-distance IP network connections when satellite, fixed-line IP or short-range wireless connections can’t, ABI researchers found.
“While cellular will not have the highest number of connections, or the highest average revenue per connection, it will provide the greatest opportunity to drive the most overall value from those connections,” according to ABI analyst Jonathan Collins.
Wireless connections – WiFi, Bluetooth, ZigBee, Near Field Communications (NFC), Ultra Wide Band (UWB), Wireless USB or infra-red, among others – will grow much more quickly than other methods of M2M networking because they’re simpler than those that require the installation of wires and cheaper than satellite or cellular.
Mesh networks might allow WiFi-enabled sensors to collect data from every room and every device onboard a ship, an offshore oil platform, a mine or other facility without reliable wired Internet connections, as well as from every truck, car or other heavily wired vehicle.
However, mesh networks and short-range wireless won’t allow that data to be passed from a collection or monitoring station to a more central collection point from which the facility would be remotely monitored, according to Collins, who wrote the ABI report. It’s too expensive to push wired connections to every remote outpost to allow M2M networking, and too expensive to use satellite for every collection of Things that is out of WiFi range of the Internet.
The only real alternative is the cellular networks that already cover most areas M2M networks would have to cross, already have the networks in place, and could easily change pricing models to accommodate bursty, low-bandwidth, minimal data-throughput connections to intelligent devices, the ABI Research report concluded.
The French SigFox service already offers a low-throughput M2M connection for $3 per device per year. The U.S.-based Weightless SIG is aiming at the same market with a wireless radio standard it is developing to use white space in the TV spectrum for longer-range (10 KM) M2M networks.
Neither approach is likely to negate the other, just as cellular M2M connections won’t replace other methods, Collins wrote. The billions of devices that will be connected to the IoT will provide so many different technical and cost requirements that there will be room for almost as many connection methods as their manufacturers can develop.
Existing networks, owned by stable, well-financed carriers able to provide reliable service at a variety of prices and/or situations, will be first in line to benefit from the IoT, selling reliable services to new categories of devices with a minimum of trouble or a need for new technology on either side, especially during the early years of the IoT.
Shorter-range wireless will certainly do the bulk of the work of connecting the IoT, but there’s not enough money in that to justify a whole new class of network providers, the report concluded.
The only real alternative in the short term is the one that’s already available, however expensive or clunky they might seem.