Can the wireless spectrum handle 50 billion devices?

Machine-to-machine and Internet-connected devices will put a heavy strain on U.S. wireless infrastructure

The Internet of things is at once a very exciting and very scary concept to telecommunications companies.

Think of a world with 50 billion Internet-connected devices. That was the number bandied about at the International CTIA Wireless 2011 convention in Orlando, Fla. It is a world in which everything is connected. When speaking of wireless devices, people think of smart phones, the emerging tablet market and Wi-Fi-enabled laptops.

The Internet of things — also referred to as Machine-to-Machine (M2M) and the Semantic Web — encompasses much more than that. It includes digital advertisements, sensors, automobiles, tanks, jets, carpets, doors and pacemakers. The coffee cup that holds the pens on your desk could be IP-enabled to send an alert every time somebody attempts to steal one of your favorite writing devices.

“Connecting me changes my life. Connecting everything changes everything,” said Hans Vestberg, CEO of Ericsson, during his keynote address on the second day of CTIA. “All devices that can benefit from connectivity will be connected.”


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The implications of a completely Internet-connected society are hard to fathom. The concept of the smart grid is the first and most prominent application in this realm, and health care is a close second. The main themes facing the wireless industry were repeated often at CTIA. They are the blend of health care and wireless and where all the spectrum is going to come from to move all this data. (Distracted driving was a lively topic as well.)

Data and spectrum: The two are inextricably linked as the United States moves to open up more wireless spectrum and bring broadband connectivity to every corner of the country. The Federal Communications Commission is attempting to bring 500 extra megahertz of spectrum to the industry in the next few years.

A lot of spectrum is owned by the large TV corporations, which would need to agree to put it up for auction ("incentive auctions" is a favorite term at FCC right now). There is white-space spectrum, which is the spectrum between spectrum. There is open spectrum, like most of the 700 MHz band that the Obama administration plans to use for building a national safety network, increasing broadband penetration and cutting the federal deficit. If there is a scrap of spectrum hiding under a rock, FCC will try to find it, attempt to deploy it and ultimately find a way to optimize it.

The data explosion is not just coming from all the smart devices, however. The M2M networks in the wireless industry are helping to create all that data. Finding a place for the data to live — in local data centers or the cloud — is the easy part. Making sure that the riverbed that contains the stream is large enough for the task is part of the problem.

And what are people going to do with all that data? A lot of it will be completely useless. The M2M companies realize that and are working on solutions to bring clients, such as the federal government and especially the armed forces, not only the data but the useful bits within the data.

“It could be tracking not just events but notable algorithms that you want to inspect,” said Richard Burtner, senior vice president and general manager of location-based services at Numerex. “As opposed to passing reams of data across the airwaves, are there times when the customer only wants to know when an event occurred?”

Burtner gave a couple of examples, such as tracking heat sensors and pressure patterns on a carpet in an office. “If we wanted to, we could predict where the carpet is going to wear,” he said.

Or suppose there is a person at a place that is not consistent with data patterns. An alert could be sent to stakeholders, such as building security or company executives, to tell them that something suspicious might be happening at the office. If such sensory equipment had been present at the Watergate complex to act as a deterrent on June 17, 1972, the life of Richard Nixon — and the United States — might have been a lot different.

Companies like Numerex and other players in the field, such as SIMCom Wireless Solutions and KORE Telematics (to name a few of many), have to decide on a localized basis how to move the data their sensors, tracers and other devices collect. That could mean wireless networks based on High Speed Packet Access, Long Term Evolution, WiMax or satellite options, or even the good old hard lines through copper and fiber-optic cables.

“What works in southeast Asia and Afghanistan, which would probably be satellite, would not be right for a place like western Europe with its robust cellular networks,” Burtner said.

Even in rural areas of the United States, the issue is less one of spectrum and more of infrastructure. There is no spectrum crunch in North Dakota because there are fewer people doing fewer things on the network. Yet New York City already has spectrum issues just from smart-phone use. FCC's attempts to open up bandwidth will help eventually, but what happens when the real faucet of M2M gets into gear?

That is just one issue with the current data explosion and the avalanche that is to follow. The situation will not have concrete answers in the foreseeable future as solutions are brainstormed, spectrum sold and infrastructure built.

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