The Internet of Opportunity

By LAURIE PATTON | 4 August 2016

One of the biggest threats to our success as an Internet of Things (IoT) nation is a loss of trust by people at large. We need effective collaboration between government, industry and civil society to ensure we foster innovation in a manner that creates and ensures security and confidence.

Another issue is the need for a 21st Century broadband network. Without one we won’t be able to enjoy the Internet of Opportunity.

Yet, as we consider our IoT future, technology is only part of the equation. Making sure that there is market for newfangled technology and technology based services was a key element that led to the DotCom boom / bust. Too many clever ideas with no serious, or only limited, market interest cruelled many a startup back then.

Internet Australian (IA) is a chapter of the global Internet Society (ISOC), which is the largest network of people and organisations focused on ensuring the Internet continues to evolve as a platform for innovation, collaboration, economic development and social progress. ISOC believes the “Internet is for everyone”.

IA maintains Australia would have been better served had we continued with the original NBN full-fibre (FTTP) model for the National Broadband Network rather than switch to a copper wire based (FTTN) version. Fortunately, there is now available a third alternative; fibre to the driveway, or fibre to the distribution point (FTTdp). IA believes FTTdp is a suitable compromise; one that will provide far faster speeds than FTTN and one that is upgradable, which FTTN is not. Once the fibre is run through the existing ducts in the street you have two options; use the short length of existing copper wire or run fibre all the way into the premises. If you go with copper first up, it will be relatively inexpensive to upgrade to fibre later on a premise-by-premise basis whenever a customer wishes to do this.

Working from that frame of reference, I’m keen to look at the Internet of Things (IoT) from two sides: the people and organisations who are building IoT networks and products. And the people and organisations that will use them.

IoT is not exactly new. The phrase was first coined back in 1991 by UK technology pioneer Kevin Ashton who while working at MIT created a global standard system for Radio-Frequency Identification devices.

In fact, it’s claimed that in the early 1990’s a vending machine at Carnegie Melon University was connected to the Internet so staff could check whether or not it was actually working, without leaving their desks.

Back in 2000 LG was the first to announce plans for a refrigerator connected to the Internet – arguably the most talked about, but possibly least enthusiastically anticipated IoT innovation.

From a technical point of view, IoT is simply a network of connected devices that use sensors to automate or control physical activities. It relies on a ubiquitous Internet and is increasingly backed-up or housed in the ‘Cloud’. IoT uses smart analytics to perform its functions in real time and leverages Big Data to make better decisions than humans, to make decisions quicker than humans, or to make decision without humans.

That’s why I actually prefer to talk about the Internet of Opportunity.

Firstly, there’s the opportunity for new technologies linked to the Internet to create a better world – both from an economic and a social development point of view.

And secondly, the opportunity for IoT to create new businesses and new employment at a time when both our economic mainstays, mining and agriculture, are under competitive pressure, domestically and globally. Interestingly, it is in those two sectors that IoT offers some exciting prospects.

From a government perspective IoT offers the potential to improve the delivery of services and increase the public’s confidence in those services. It also provides a clear case for supporting innovation and a tangible set of products and services able to contribute to our GDP.

When it comes to the IoT, our greatest strength is our history of innovation. Our biggest weakness is we are not building a future-proofed 21st Century NBN to provide the necessary underlying connectivity.

Apart from connectivity the biggest threat comes from the potential for a loss of confidence in the Internet due to concerns about privacy and security.

Along with the Communications Alliance, UTS Sydney and a wide range of companies and other interested parties, we have formed the IoT Alliance of Australia (IoTAA).

The goal is to have “an activated, globally-aware Australian IoT industry community, with a future strategy and vision that is understood and supported by industry and key stakeholders and which positively influences the advancement of IoT and the realisation of the opportunities and benefits it creates.”

IoTAA was sparked in part by a report by Creator Tech. I commend this report as a starting point if you are just developing an interest in the Internet of Things.

The Report provides an industry-wide view of the regulatory and policy enablers and inhibitors for Australian IoT industry success, Australia’s IoT readiness, and recommendations for policy and industry initiatives.

In its executive summary the Creator Tech report it quotes the McKinsey Global Institute’s assessment of the potential for IoT called “The internet of Things: Mapping the Value Beyond the Hype”. McKinsey puts an upper limit on the potential global economic impact by 2025 of $US11.1 trillion, or about 11 percent of the World Bank’s estimate of the value of the world economy by that time.

This translates into an impact on the Australia economy of up to $116 billion by 2025.

There are some very interesting IoT products and services being developed around the world. Germany and the US are focusing on industrial and manufacturing applications. Singapore, China and India are leading the world in the development of Smart Cities.

In Australia mining and agriculture are two areas ripe for innovation based around IoT. Here are some examples of the potential:

  •  Tags placed on stock grazing in remote areas that report whether they are putting on weight or not, have a disease or have had an accident.
  • Sensors monitoring dams and feed lots.
  • Sensors collecting data on temperature, light, soil acidity and fertiliser content.
  • Sensors that tell oyster farmers there’s a water pollution problem.
  • Viticulturists using sensors to keep track of temperature, wind speed, light, humidity and the amount of water in soil to boost the growth of grapes.

Our larger miners are already using advanced robotics and autonomous devices to dramatically lower their operating costs. In many cases they are building their own information networks but as we see the use of this sort of technology expand as costs come down it will be possible for many smaller companies to embrace IoT in this way.

Healthcare is another area where Australia could do well. We’ve already invented the heart pacemaker. Devices to monitor in-home a person’s blood pressure, heart rate etc. all could easily be connected to hospitals and doctor’s surgery. Some of this is already happening of course, but there is doubtless scope for more sophistication.

In the transport and logistic area, sensors and related equipment is already being rolled out to monitor vehicle performance and driver performance. Likewise tags on individual goods allow them to be tracked worldwide in real time. Cars, buses and trucks with sensors providing data on congestion to optimise traffic flows via smart traffic lights and GPS notifications.

In sport, the use of so-called “wearables” is revolutionising real-time player performance tracking and analysis, allowing teams and individuals to improve their performance while also pointing to potential injuries that could have an immediate or even long term impact.

In homes and businesses, air-quality sensors providing real time information about temperature, and pollution, and enabling better use of power and water.

Clearly, there is plenty of scope for Australia to become a leading player in IoT. But we need to be taking the right steps right now.

For one thing, unless we create the required connectivity we won’t get far. Our technology lagging national broadband network is a serious problem and one which we need people in government to act on before it is too late.

In addition to creating products and services that are based on IoT there is also an opportunity for Australia to lead in the development of the technologies that underpin IoT. Our CSIRO is credited with inventing Wi-Fi, so we should certainly be looking at new forms of technology that improve the utility of our limited spectrum.

Smart batteries that are required to power remote IoT devices is another area ripe for commercial exploitation.

As we roll out literally billions of new connected devices we will need to consider the availability of Internet protocol addresses. The current allocation via IPv4 is running out and there is a move to IPv6. This, too, needs to be addressed collaboratively between industry and government. It has been argued that IoT will not take hold as quickly as we might wish unless there is a more progressive uptake of IPv6. There is however a counter-argument that says one will drive the other and so it works both ways.

Ultimately, we need government to foster innovation. At the top of any list of assistance required from government is action to deal with the growing and evident shortage in a skilled ICT workforce and the creation of a pool of industry practitioners that will be needed for IoT. We also need to encourage our most innovative types to stay here rather than succumb to the lure of Silicon Valley and other emerging tech hubs.

One way in which government can assist in the development of IoT is by working collaboratively with everyone who has a stake in the game. That means industry of course, but also consumer groups and civil society organisations.

(This article is based on a number of conference presentations by Laurie Patton, as CEO/Executive Director of Internet Australia.)