"Everybody wants interoperatibility, but some companies set their profit expectations on closed platforms"
The Internet of Things (IoT) or Machine to Machine communications (M2M) refers to those technologies and developments that focus on the connection of everyday objects to the internet.
They are at the core of the service infrastructure offered in Smart Cities, fundamental services meant for citizens and performed under efficiency and sustainability criteria. Nevertheless, their application goes far beyond that level, as they support applications in the field of public health, environment, traffic management, vehicle safety and domotics (home automation), among others.
Given the potential in sight for IoT, these technologies may be claimed to be in a preliminary development phase, which makes it possible to create initiatives aimed at standardization; this should enable a competitive and interoperative development of the aforementioned technologies, making innovation easier and bringing benefits to citizens.
Smart cities services are currently being provided in several Spanish cities -most of them are still being tested and use the city as a “living lab”- and have in common the use of technologies included in the IoT. Such is the case of the car park management in the urban space, in which wireless sensors connected to the data processing center enable the obtention of real-time data regarding zones in which free space is available. This is used in combination with sensors and cameras distributed thoroughout the city streets to maintain an up-to-date information system on the state of the traffic in each street, with a view to helping drivers choose the most convenient route and car park zone. Another example to be mentioned are the smart urban light applications, in which an array of wireless sensors monitor several factors in real time: presence of natural light, light emitted by monuments and circulating vehicles, weather condition, degree of street cluttering (presence of pedestrians)… The aforementioned information is combined with pre-established safety criteria, and the intensity of light is modulated accordingly, thus enabling energy saving.
The previous examples are just two initiatives among the many that are currently in progress, but forecasts focusing not only on Smart Cities, but also on the motor vehicle sector, connected vehicles and domotics, as well as lighting devices, safety devices, electric shutters and household appliances connected to the Internet suggest we should be ready for thousands of millions* of daily life devices being connected to the internet.
In spite of the aforementioned conditions -being in a preliminary phase of market development, which should favour standardization- the current situation is far from being that of interoperatibility between devices and networks.
The visit to the Smart City Expo World Congress exhibition (which took place in Barcelona at the end of November this year), shows a highly compartmentalized market distribution: some great firms showcase their proprietary platforms whereas others decide to use open software (Open Standards) and yet a third group take the lead on initiatives supported by the 7th Framework Programme of the EU in order to develop projects focused on smart infrastructures connected to the internet, thus enabling standardization.
An overview of the situation previously mentioned shows a great dispersion in the number of proprietary platforms, standards and inititiatives, all of them competing to become “the standard platform”.
As it has been the case in most of the processes for standardization/normalization, huge market perspectives drive the agents involved in the value chain to do their best to reach an agreement on standards.
As for the applications focusing on Smart Cities, market circumstances are not yet those of a massive presence of devices and equipment, which makes incentives insufficient to reach agreements regarding standardization. In other sectors, such as motor vehicles, domotics, or telemonitoring of electricity, water and gas supplies, with a potential market perspective of tens of millions of devices, much work has been done by normalization bodies such as ETSI in standard elaboration, especially regarding the integration and association of existing technologies.
The Technical Committee for Machine to Machine Communications (M2M) in the ETSI is now facing the challenge of gathering all the existing technologies and standards that currently exist in an already fragmented setting, in order to undertake their harmonization and complete them wherever normative voids are detected.
Most of the Smart Cities projects are “tailor-made” projects depending on client requirements (usually the local government bodies). That would explain why taking standardization further is a difficult task in these cases, as the conditions mentioned above -which would encourage and stimulate normalization- do not appear here. This situation forces sensor manufacturers who already use clearly normalized sensor technologies (WiFi, WiMax, GSM, 3G, LTE) to develop “open” communication and identification protocols, in order to make them compatible with the existing proprietary platforms belonging to huge solution providers.
In February 2013, the European Commission published the results of a survey on the government of the IoT that was performed in mid-2012. The survey is focused on the aspects analyzed in the document “Internet of Things – an Action Plan for Europe COM (2009) 278 final”.
Most of the survey respondents considered interoperatibility to be an important objective, and they believed “open platforms” would foster competence and innovation. They also stated that, in order to make interoperatibility easier, a single identification system (ID) for objects should be defined.
Nevertheless, any future initiative to be taken by the EC as a result of the survey should carefully consider any attempt to provide interoperatibility. In a free market system, some companies will consider their profit expectations to be associated to the development of closed platforms, which increases the need for clear incentives to encourage companies that have developed their own object identification systems to be willing to adopt a unified system.
In spite of all the obstacles, a clear fact will press forward in favour of interoperability: a market forecast in which thousands of millions* of objects present in our daily lives will be interconnected in order to provide a better service.
By Albert Martí. Manager at AMB Associates