2020 was a good year for the Internet of Things (IoT) but 2021 promises to be even more exciting. Use cases for machine data proliferate and technology and connectivity convergences make a slew of new applications possible. Crystal balling it for the moment, here are five predictions in the IoT space.
2021 is the year when the growth and adoption of IoT will eclipse even the move to smartphones as more companies see the value it can unlock. We’re seeing that with an incredibly diverse set of enterprise users: UPS for optimizing route efficiency; Walmart for transforming retail using sensor-driven customer insights, John Deere for precision agriculture, and Caterpillar for establishing “the Age of Smart Iron.”
They all recognize that IoT is the way to harness and leverage the power of Big Data effectively. Of course, Big Data is not new. But using it in this way is only recently possible thanks to a unique convergence of factors:
As a result, companies can do much more -- and earn both competitive advantage and meaningful revenue gains in the process. It’s no longer, “How can I track my package?” It’s now, “How can I enhance my customer experience?” And the answer is IoT.
Global enterprise companies are highly interested in IoT and Industrial IoT (IIoT) applications to increase efficiency in business, from manufacturing to smart cities to health and fitness. Telecom providers have experienced declines in mobile average revenue per user (ARPU) as it becomes more and more difficult to charge consumers high rates for data. New mobile user growth is also slowing, while advances in open architecture (e.g., the O-RAN Alliance) are further pushing down costs.
As a consequence, telecoms are actively looking to other revenue streams to make up for these shortfalls -- and IoT offers an opportunity to restore additional black to the balance sheets. On top of that, satellite-based narrowband IoT connectivity is offered at a set level, and doesn't fluctuate, providing a safeguard against the kind of unforeseen outages that seriously compromise productivity. Using satellites to ensure connectivity, satellite-based narrowband isn’t just low cost -- the equivalent of buying a cup of coffee per day -- but surprise-free, too.
The industry will confront two substantial challenges in the year to come: basic connectivity and coverage, and data overload. On the connectivity side, 5G sounds wonderful for consumers. But for carriers, it poses significant issues. As higher-frequency bands are deployed, cell sizes shrink. Sure, more bandwidth is technically available, but the amount of usable bandwidth per square mile is actually reduced, resulting in 5G coverage that’s less available than current networks. Carriers will have to deploy thousands of cell sites just to get to the current level of coverage, a significant outlay of both CapEx and OpEx without a correspondingly large increase in revenue.
Meanwhile, even as this machine data begins to stream in, will people actually be able to do anything meaningful with it? Enterprises and users will be overwhelmed with gigabytes of data -- and many will find it difficult to act on it. Users will have to parse through mountains of data, find specific items to correlate, and put those findings into practice. The process of sifting through it -- looking for the data equivalent of a gold strike -- is a fool’s errand; there has to be a strategic question or objective to govern the effort.
For entrepreneurs and technologists, this represents an opportunity to help by offering new solutions to understand and use all this data in a real-time way. But in the meantime, companies will need to have a very clear objective for why and how they’ll use it.
5G will unquestionably be a good thing for the industry. We know that people consume more bandwidth over time, and 5G opens the door to very intensive usage. It will go well beyond FaceTime and Zoom to real-time video applications like drone control, remote surgeries, autonomous vehicles and bots, and other essential applications. Such use cases are clearly positives -- and they’re certainly exciting to imagine.
At the same time, 5G will also reduce latency and increase the use cases for machine data. But implementation is still in its very early days. And the drive to serve high-visibility bleeding-edge cases could mean that simple, low ARPU, single-heartbeat -- and absolutely vital -- applications may get lost in the shuffle. Think of an SOS message sent by a fishing boat in the middle of the ocean or the temperature of a vaccine during transport or the flow of oil through a pipeline. These applications don’t need gigs of data in milliseconds, but they’re as important as any other function driving the shift to 5G. After all, the ramifications of a broken pipeline can be worse than a fallen drone.
If we look back to the first mainframe computers and trace their evolution, we see an interesting arc. We started with mainframes, then went to the edge with PCs. Then we connected that edge with the Internet, and then moved on to a centralized paradigm with cloud services. Now, there’s an important swing back to edge computing.
A dizzying arc in some ways, it’s also illustrative. It shows us that the answer isn’t a happy medium, but rather a spectrum of solutions based upon the use case. That’s true for computers, and it’s certainly true for IoT. There will be applications that require lightning-fast speeds; and there will be others where taking milliseconds or even seconds actually doesn’t matter. Edge computing allows us to take that minute beat of time to send back just the relevant data -- and only that data -- which, in turn, allows us to make a critical decision or take key actions. In 2021, the most forward-thinking technologists will worry about or prioritize latency only when it makes sense -- and otherwise let it go in favor of solving other problems.
Ultimately, 2021 represents another year of opportunity for technologists to do right by customers. In our case, we’re using IoT for machines to do more than help farmers embed soil sensors, fishers to find a good spot for the day, or pharmaceutical companies to transport vaccines safely from a lab to a hospital. This is about helping farmers maximize revenue per acre, not just measuring nitrogen in the soil. This goes beyond helping fishermen increase their catch size to ensuring their safety through consistent connection to the shore. This is about using technology not just to track a vaccine’s temperature but to ensure maximum visibility into its journey, so there is absolute confidence in its integrity and efficacy.
If we ask the right questions, then we can design and deploy the technology that delivers the right answers.
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