There is a tendency when talking about the Internet of Things (IoT) — and all the miraculous things it will power in the future — to lose sight of the fact that it’s not really a conversation about the future. While it is still the early days of the connected era, Ludovico Fassati, head of IoT for Vodafone Americas, told Karen Webster in a recent conversation that we are unmistakably in the era of the IoT right now — as of spring 2019.
One can look at a slew sharing economy applications (cars, scooters and bikes) and realize that none of these things would be possible without being able to connect to them digitally. One can check the utility meters on most homes and apartment buildings, and realize they are all smart meters that can be read and interacted with remotely. One can even get behind the wheel of almost any new car and be able to access navigation controls, music or a connected anti-theft system.
“This is reality,” Fassati said. “This is not two years down the road; it is happening today.”
Yet, he noted, for all that has happened already, there is still a long way to go when it comes to fully and effectively building out smart environments. Some of the challenge is infrastructural, particularly when it comes to building out the 5G network globally to enable that fuller suite of use cases. Some of the issues are environmental, and not only have to do with what is being developed, but where it is being developed, and for whom it is being built.
The Evolution Of The Connected World
It is difficult to point to one area of IoT or one use case, Fassati noted, and identify it as an early winner or loser when it comes to developing capability. That's because the segment is complicated. Some things are easy to identify as more or less mature at the moment, though, and there are definitely phases in development that can be identified.
For example, in places like retail, one will likely see “a boost in accelerating these kinds of projects” because there is a lot of consumer pressure to adopt. Sharing economy firms presented customers with a commerce experience that was smart, that they liked better, and “consumers will be the ones that are driving the speed of adoption for retailers.”
However, not every space is quite as simple. Healthcare, for instance, sees much demand for IoT applications that allow for treatment outside the home. Yet, healthcare is also an intensely regulated space, which means there are many challenges in how to move, store and secure data that — by statute — must remain private.
Regulations also become an important part of the conversation when talking about IoT innovation and development on a global scale, Fassati explained, because different regulatory outlooks shape outcomes.
Take something like facial recognition technology — China has made “huge progress,” but that is an outcome of having far fewer regulations around consumer privacy. The European Union (EU) and the U.S., though, have far stricter rules. However, regulations can also push some applications forward: The EU is instigating an eCall system that will automatically send an ambulance when a crash is detected.
The pace of change will vary from locale to locale, as well as in and across verticals, but the trend line is clear. When Vodafone looks at its annual global barometer, taken from thousands of respondents around the globe, 70 percent to 80 percent of the firms the company has talked to have projects in the works around IoT, and are well aware of how urgent it is to get on board.
Unlocking The Future Use Cases
For all the advances being made today, Fassati noted, the exciting stuff comes in what happens next, particularly as 5G goes online. There are the use cases that everyone knows and thinks about, like cars and mobility — and for good reason, as they will be a massive series of future use cases all over the world, which is why Vodafone has focused so much investment there. It’s where the demand is now.
However, there are also quieter spaces — like energy, or tracking and limiting consumption. That is much easier to do, he explained, when all the light bulbs and appliances are smart, and there are sensors all around to detect usage automatically.
“We see a lot of growth in digital building, and we have business[es] of all sizes calling us about reducing their costs and being more efficient on the energy side,” he said.
There is logistics, a “very traditional business that [has] been around since [before the] time of the Romans,” which can now get massive upgrades around tracking and monitoring the path of goods being sent.
Then, there is the world of insurance — where smart cars can assess premiums based on how well one drives, or healthcare premiums can be determined by how healthy and active a lifestyle one leads. Moreover, Fassati noted, the IoT in medicine means that care can now be more easily distributed. For example, the patient in the rural area can be operated on by a surgeon in a major city 1,000 miles away, using a smart surgical robot connected virtually to that surgeon's hands.
The foundation that needs to be in place to make all of that possible is the 5G network.
In the most basic terms, Fassati said, 5G is what makes it possible to have more things connected, and at greater speed, with more packets of data being moved up and down while having better control of what types of data are connected. If those basic terms sound complex, it is because 5G is a complex technological enterprise with many moving parts that will connect an even greater number of moving parts.
In the more expansive world of connections envisioned in the future of IoT, all those connections must be perfect.
“If you think about even something as small as the latency of a millisecond, if you are doing a telemedicine operation with a surgeon in New York from a hospital in the middle of nowhere, that latency cannot happen. It is literally a matter of life and death,” he said.
It’s a tall order, particularly in a world where many more devices will be connected, throwing off almost unimaginably large amounts of data every minute of every day. Yet, it is the way the market is developing — and if IoT’s past is any indication of what’s to come next, the present has a way of turning into the future much faster than anyone expects.