AH Tech Talk: IoT Fragmentation Is Reaching Critical Mass

If you own multiple pieces of Internet of Things or smart home equipment from multiple companies, you're likely all too aware of the fact that there are a number of different wireless standards that IoT objects use to interface with each other, control hubs and, in some cases, home base, for better or for worse. Trying to look at all of the different standards can be a bit like eating alphabet soup, with all of the strange acronyms. For most users, the simplest solution is to do some research before buying any IoT equipment and try to get one standard throughout the entire home. Even then, which standard is best? Some standards tend to be used by more prominent equipment, some standards offer better battery life or connection speed and yet more offer the least possible interference with other devices in your home, or vice versa.

For the most part, there are two different groups of IoT standards that are vying for consumer attention, mostly incompatible with one another out of the box and needing either special setup or special equipment in order to function seamlessly together. Those groups are cellular standards, which use some of the same technologies as your phone to connect, and non-cellular standards, which are more akin to Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Within those groups, there are tons of standards that are, again only for the most part, interoperable. While everybody and their brother these days is declaring IoT mainstream, the fact remains that fragmentation is a huge barrier to ubiquity, perhaps even bigger than security. Unlike wars between game console makers, auto manufacturers or PC companies, until somebody comes out on top, consumers will continue to be the losers in the fragmentation battle.

Among the proprietary competitors, you'll find tons of smaller names like LoRa, Sigfox and Ingenu, most of which are seldom heard of except among those who own or create products that use them. Within the non-cellular stable, you'll also find older standards like Wi-Di or Wi-Fi Direct, along with many an IoT product using Bluetooth, despite the battery power limitations that come with it. With the non-cellular and non-proprietary options, compatibility is the name of the game, but standards are being brought out all the time that surpass these in terms of power, energy usage, expandability or all three. Many of these newer standards fall under the umbrella term LPWA, or low-power wide area.

Within the cellular camp, you have more open standards that may take a little more battery life or be harder to operate, as well as some that are extremely streamlined. Most of these standards, however, depend on local 4G LTE connections being decent, ruling them out as an option for some. Within the cellular camp, the three biggest players are EC-GSM, LTE Cat-M1 and LTE Cat-M2, all open standards. Meanwhile, a new player in town, known as NB-IoT, is shaking things up and the 3GPP, the people responsible for defining wireless standards, are working out a new group of standards specifically for IoT in order to drive open standard growth in the space.

The issues with IoT standards are further confounded by spectrum licensing woes. While many standards do license out spectrum specifically for their use, there are many standards, mainly proprietary ones, that use unlicensed spectrum. Since unlicensed spectrum could be used or even licensed by anybody, the likelihood that devices featuring these standards will kick the bucket or at least experience interference in the future is very high, if not an inevitability. While this doesn't necessarily mean that consumers should count out devices using proprietary and unlicensed standards entirely, it does mean it's probably a bad idea to hook your entire home automation setup to a proprietary hub and plan not to update any of the hardware for more than a decade or so.

Industry analysts and even those in the industry are predicting as much. One analyst went as far as to say that non-cellular standards may end up becoming the next iDEN, if the 3GPP standards take a while to define and build out. It's not hard to envision; just like millions had chirping phones just a few years ago before iDEN networks went mostly dark and forced them to switch to other technologies, owners of proprietary IoT gear may find themselves in a similar situation to Nest Revolv owners in a few years, but the technology could boom until then due to ease of use and low cost. On the same token, more compelling non-cellular options may not only arise, but may wind up building out massive peer to peer networks and becoming officially defined, leading to prominence and perhaps even dominance over cellular standards. In essence, this means that it's still anybody's game, but proprietary system builders would have a bit more work and headaches waiting for them in order to win the day. Whatever happens, it's obvious that IoT fragmentation is going to get worse before it gets better, and consumers, especially early adopters, are in for a wild ride.

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