The absence of ubiquitous network access provides perhaps one of the biggest technical challenges to Internet of Things scaling. Wireless LANs and mobile data networks are fine up to a point, but are far too expensive and power hungry for many applications, with network coverage being patchy or non-existent in some areas. One promising solution to this comes in the form of television white space – chunks of prime radio spectrum which are being made available for unlicensed use, similar to the 2.4GHz band used by 802.11 networks, but with additional constraints that will enable more efficient use of this scarce resource. Better still, since this is at UHF frequencies, it's far more robust than 2.4GHz and is much better at penetrating walls and dense foliage.
The original purpose of white space was to provide unused guard spectrum between channels or bands so as to avoid interference. But it's now become possible to safely make use of this through carefully coordinated access. This is achieved by providing geolocation databases that equipment can query and update in real-time, and by cognitive radio systems which are able to detect other spectrum users and, where appropriate, give them priority use of a particular frequency.
Cambridge (UK) based Neul is one company that is leading the charge in TV white space technology, claiming to have solutions that support ranges of up to 10km and data rates of up to 16Mbps. Custom silicon is in development that has a target price of $1, and will allow devices to have low bandwidth machine-to-machine communications for up to 15 years on a single battery.
"The Internet of Things has long been seen as an area of much promise, capable of growth to billions of connected devices. But it has awaited the deployment of ubiquitous networks, which in turn have needed globally harmonised, low frequency radio spectrum. Only recently has this become available in the form of white space spectrum access, which provides the final piece in the puzzle of making machine communications work. As white space is enabled around the globe we may now be on the verge of finally making the IoT happen."
– Professor William Webb, CTO, Neul and previously head of R&D at telecoms regulator Ofcom.
An IoT Open Data Bill of Rights
The handling of data ownership and rights continues to be a hot topic in many areas of our increasingly digital lives, and getting this right for the Internet of Things may well be the single largest non-technical challenge to its scaling. Recognising the critical importance of the issue, Pachube, now Cosm, proposed a draft IoT “Bill of Rights” back in March 2011. One year later a Google Group was set up to move the discussion forward, with an Open IoT Assembly scheduled to take place in London on 16-17 June 2012. The event features an impressive speaker line-up that includes ubiquitous computing luminary, Adam Greenfield, and with workshops during which the Bill of Rights will be further refined prior to its official publication at the conclusion of the second day.
"We want to build a trust network in which citizens, developers, businesses and cities can contribute to a sustainable data future via an open data delivery and discoverability framework.
"We believe that data generated from public space (not subject to valid privacy, security or privilege limitations, as governed by other statutes) should be made available for use.
"We believe that customers enter relationships with vendors as independent actors and data collected for/from/about them is available for their use, with a right of action.
"This approach must be based on principles that support the efficient exchange of timely and accurate information and the protection of choice and privacy."
– Preface from a draft proposed 25th April 2012 by IoT Open Data group member, Trevor Harwood.
Although the component parts of the Internet of Things are relatively simple and can be assembled right now, as we have seen, some of the bigger technological, political and social challenges of creating a sustainable, connected environment are far from simple. But solutions to such challenges are on the horizon, with their development being driven forward by more people having the technology in their hands. And as the IoT increasingly finds many new and novel uses which free us from our dependency on centralised and top-down information infrastructures, it's possible that it might just become one of the biggest technology democracies of our time.
Andrew Back (@9600) is a freelance consultant who originally trained as an electronics engineer and first used Linux in the mid-90s. He's since worked at BT's open source innovation unit, Osmosoft, founded the Open Source Hardware User Group, and more recently co-founded SolderPad – a place to collaborate on electronic design.