‘The Internet Of Things’ is one of the hottest topics in tech right now, and for good reason. The idea of objects and appliances being able to connect to the Internet has some really exciting applications. We’ll be able to control our appliances when out of the house, keep secure and safe with smart alarms and, of course, there’s the fabled ability to have meals ready when we walk through the door after a long day.
Connecting these devices to an account, pairing them with a phone, and then connecting to a home WiFi network is a pretty crappy experience at the moment. WiFi passwords are complex and typically live on the back of a router that lives behind a bookcase or some other obstacle.
There are solutions out there that require a base station, but why should we have to do this when 99% of the UK is covered with GSM connectivity? There are products and ideas that would much better suit 3G/4G connectivity, products that operate outside the reach of our home wireless connection.
Eighteen months ago I tried to create ‘Rocko Collar’, a pet collar that used the GSM network to transmit the exact location of your pet and to show it on a mobile app. I wasn’t the first to try this, but set out on a mission to do it right… and ran into the same problems as similar projects.
I have come to the conclusion that there are two fundamental reasons why people won’t buy connected products that rely on mobile networks:
1. Too expensive due to the manufacturers covering the cost of the mobile contracts.
2. Cheaper products come with a monthly subscription.
When building Rocko Collar, I originally dealt with two mobile networks in the UK, EE and Telephonica, and both could only offer a solution based on a monthly line rental fee per registered device. This way of doing business creates some difficulties for manufacturers, as it’s difficult to estimate the life span of a product in order to absorb the cost in the RRP or to convince customers that a monthly fee is a good idea. People aren’t used to paying a monthly fee to use something like a pet collar, a kettle or a thermostat. Some might say that a £5 monthly fee to use a connected device isn’t really that much but, in time, connectivity in our appliances will become an expected feature and those monthly fees will soon rack up.
So what is the answer? Quite simply, mobile networks need to leave the Stone Age. The days of charging a fixed line rental cost per little plastic SIM card need to be put behind us. Mobile networks should be able to offer packages that meet the needs of businesses building products where connectivity is a non-visible feature. If manufacturers are able to provide mobile networks with an estimated life span of the product, how many products they aim to sell and what network resources they will use, the mobile networks should be able to offer a blanket billing plan based on actual usage instead of line rental and allowances. They may not make as much money as they would like, but it would give the tech industry a massive incentive to create all sorts of devices that will ultimately become a key revenue stream for mobile operators.
However, I realise I may be asking a lot from an industry that still believes using your mobile device in another country warrants a 25000%* mark-up fee.
What scares providers is the prospect of large numbers of machines trying to establish contact with a base station at the same moment instantaneously congesting the system, and interfering with regular callers access. When the internet of things grows well into the billions of connections, that s going to be a common issue. Unsurprisingly, redesigning the connection protocols to accommodate machine communications is a high priority in wireless research.