As the Internet of Things (IoT) matures, and begins to mean more than the oversimplified (and over-hyped) early examples, such as the much maligned connected fridge, it has become clear that mobile networks will be crucial for ensuring connectivity of devices. It’s beyond doubt that mobile data connectivity (3G/4G) will be key to this, until the arrival of 5G at least. However, traditional mobile telephony services, and SMS in particular, could still have a vital role to play in cases where a smaller amount of data is to be transported, carrier grade security is required and where mobile data services are not readily available.
In the eight years since the smartphone was developed, mobile connectivity has grown to the point where connected devices have exceeded the world’s population. By some estimates, the number of devices connected to the internet will continue to rise and outnumber the people on the planet by more than seven to one over the next five years. This influx of internet usage is having a sizeable impact on businesses and the introduction of the IoT is offering organisations limitless opportunities to transform how they operate, providing the ability to innovate and disrupt markets.
Verizon’s recent State of the Market – The Internet of Things 2015 report surmised: “While the IoT is widely hailed as the next big thing, the key ingredients — network connectivity, cloud, security, and infrastructure — have existed for decades”. It is also widely recognised that reliable connectivity is perhaps the most important ingredient. This means that all possible connectivity options should be leveraged in order to ensure devices are always networked.
Connected machine to machine (M2M) appliances, such as Nest Labs’ smart thermostats, fire alarms and security cameras are providing reassurance for consumers and manufacturers alike. For consumers, M2M devices can be remotely controlled while they’re away from home using their smartphone, which makes for greater safety and security while on the go. For manufacturers, connected devices provide a better ability to log device performance and determine detailed usage patterns, detect and possibly predict breakdown events, as well as gather diagnostic information to improve future products.
2G supporting 3G
Although having access to high speed mobile data connectivity is the ideal situation for the IoT to succeed, reliability of the service is not always excellent and widespread coverage is not consistently available. Additionally, in a lot of cases, it isn’t financially realistic to have a dedicated mobile data connection to transport smaller amounts of data, such as those in some M2M devices. Solving these challenges leads to a surprising realisation – a high bandwidth mobile connection is not always the best answer.
Examining wearable devices and connected cars for instance – if they are to offer a 2G connection, in addition to 3G or 4G, users will not only experience significant cost savings when taking them abroad – they will also remain connected even when they are out of range of the higher throughput mobile data services.
With GSMA figures indicating that mobile operators reach approximately 85% of the global population using 2G, compared with around 55% with 3G or 4G networks, SMS is still much more widely available than mobile data. Therefore, even though it is considered older technology, given that it is the most pervasive mobile connectivity capability worldwide, using SMS over 2G could be a pragmatic method to ensure maximum connectivity for IoT devices. Apart from its ubiquitous presence, the low cost of SMS compared to mobile data, means that SMS could conceivably be the most economical primary method of data collection or broadcasting for a wide range of connected devices that need to support only limited or simple online functions.
As smaller applications and services surface, the definition of a connected device is changing. These devices rely on notifications to be delivered promptly and reliably and this functionality doesn’t require the level of connectivity that 4G provides – a simple connection will more than suffice, and the proven reliability of SMS makes a strong case for this application.
Developing markets and the IoT
Gartner forecasts the global IoT market to total more than 26bn devices by 2020. This is supported by Andrew Milroy, Vice President, Frost & Sullivan Asia Pacific, who believes that the key drivers behind this growth are “the nexus of low-cost sensors, cloud computing, advanced data analytics and mobility.” This success will inevitably lead to the availability of more data to inform, analyse and support future innovations.
Despite clear growth potential on a global scale, lower internet access rates in developing markets, such as Africa, Asia and Latin America, are hindering IoT adoption. However, this state of affairs is set to change. For example, consulting firm McKinsey recently estimated that Africa will triple internet penetration to over 50 per cent, or around 600m people, by 2025. Such developments in Africa as well as other emerging markets will inevitably lead to the uptake of IoT technologies being greatly accelerated.
As an interim measure, 2G and SMS can play a significant role in expediting the growth of connected devices in these developing markets by offering at least some limited services, without the high price tag or need for a high-speed Wi-Fi or mobile data. While this may not be a long-term solution, it is certainly worth considering in developing markets that lack high speed connectivity.
The future of IoT and SMS
Regardless of the challenges, IoT network teams are still releasing new services into the market. But to ensure its success, consumers and businesses must be provided with reliable connected devices that receive accurate data as and when they require it.
While 4G is undoubtedly the preferred technology for connected devices, we mustn’t completely consign 2G to the past – after all, there is still most definitely a case for the ubiquity of SMS and the ease of application it offers within the IoT. Will this still be the case in 10 years’ time? Let’s wait and see.