Connectivity for the Internet of Things

Let me say it up front: I don’t think the internet-of-things is being deployed for reals in the home by many people at this point. My argument is simple: nobody ever talks about the number one frustration that I have in my home, and I don’t think I’m unique:

WiFi coverage, or the lack thereof.

If I walk around the house with my phone, tablet, or laptop, and happen to sit down in a place where there is bad WiFi coverage, I just get up, and sit on the other couch. Problem solved. That unfortunately doesn’t work for IoT devices that are, well, wherever they have been put in the house, and cannot move:

E.g. if one of your WiFi lightbulbs cannot reliably get enough WiFi signal, what are you going to do? Move the WiFi base station to the middle of the room? Rip out the light fixture and put a hole in your ceiling in some place that is better for WiFi reception, but worse for lighting?

Cellular signals have the same problem, of course, except often worse, which is why new iPhones switch over to WiFi when they can, and not the other way around.

On the other hand, there’s a slew of new low-power, extremely cheap wireless technologies popping up that have much better long-distance abilities than WiFi or cellular, in exchange for much lower bandwidths. They just haven’t been deployed very broadly. That lower bandwidth is okay for many IoT applications, because, for example, just how rapidly does a room temperature change? Sending a few bytes every minute from a sensor seems plenty.

I recently bought some of those radios from LowPowerLabs, although I haven’t had a chance yet to play with them. They say they have gotten real-world transmissions up to 350m (1000ft, for you Americans). And they can run on batteries. Sounds like a much better plan than relying on WiFi in the home.

And last night, I had the opportunity to listen to a rather interesting presentation by somebody from Sigfox, a French startup company that has already rolled out a low-power, low-cost, low-bandwidth IoT communications networks that covers the entirety of France and Spain. They want to cover the top-20 markets in the US within the next 12 months. For somewhere between $1 and $12 a year, per device (wholesale price), you get connectivity for your devices that is so low-power you may be able to feed them from solar only. In exchange, they are really low-bandwidth: you get 12 bytes per message, and you better not send too many! But I can think of many applications where that might just be fine. Moisture sensing for farming or your front yard, for example.

The only thing I really didn’t like about the Sigfox presentation was a great amount of handwaving around security. If people have a good security story, they usually tell it, not repeatedly evade the question. So perhaps Sigfox really only applies to data that is fundamentally not very confidential, which still leaves a number of applications, e.g. the above soil moisture measurement. Whether Sigfox can ever earn the returns they need for the bootload of venture capital they raised, I have no idea. But it’s interesting to see that we’re finally moving beyond WiFi and cellular, and that there are new entrants into the market that aren’t your usual no-net-neutrality cable/telco would-be monopolist.