Almost daily, I work with customers and partners as they develop strategies to gain competitive differentiation through innovative technology. One area bursting with change is the Internet of Things (IoT), which has grown more than threefold in number of deployments since 2012. This is the first in a series of blogs on technology and business factors to keep in mind while considering IoT, beginning with the explosion of IoT access technologies.

The first wave of the Internet focused on enabling human communication. Since the early 1990s, the number of connected devices has skyrocketed from around 1 million personal computers to 15 billion networked devices today. As more and more devices enter the picture, we are developing the key building blocks for the next big wave of the Internet, called the Internet of Everything (IoE)—the networked connection of people, process, data, and things. IoT is a major enabler of IoE, connecting sensors, machines, and other devices.

By 2020, there will be as many as 50 billion connected devices—including cars, buses, trains, office buildings, factories, oil rigs, homes, and entire cities. Some are stationary, some mobile, some have IP addresses, some don’t, some are always on, some intermittent, some are clustered together, some geographically dispersed. This diversity is driving a proliferation of access technologies to connect them. No longer limited to Ethernet, Wi-Fi, and 3G/4G, IoT deployments today also include satellite, Bluetooth LE, Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) technologies such as LoRa, Power Line Communication (PLC), and various Wireless Personal Area Networks (WPAN) such as Wi-SUN. Which technology is best for each situation depends on several criteria:

  1. How many, and which types of devices, are in your network?
  2. Are these devices mobile or fixed, and how geographically dispersed are they?
  3. How much data is being transmitted, and what is the bandwidth required?
  4. How time-sensitive is it?
  5. For battery powered devices, what is the battery lifetime?
  6. What are the cost constraints?

A variety of use cases can illustrate how these factors come into play:

For applications such as connected vending machines, a traditional 3G or 4G network can be used to send a signal when, for example, a brand of soda needs to be restocked, since the communication required is just a few packets every day or two, and the data isn’t particularly time-sensitive. Or, to ensure safety and efficiency in connected transportation systems, narrow-band radio might be used to send several kilobytes of data to all of a city’s buses using just five high-profile transmission sites.

IoT Access Technologies Vary According to Bandwidth, Reach, Power, and Cost.

Source: Cisco, 2015
Source: Cisco, 2015

On the other extreme, the sensors deployed around an oil rig to ensure operational safety and efficiency may generate terabytes of data each day. These sensors are connected within the rig using a combination of Ethernet and wireless technologies. In some cases, the data can be sent back to the central data repository using a fiber cable; but when this isn’t possible for remote sites, the data is processed locally in real-time, and just the exceptions or alerts are sent back via satellite.

The distance between devices makes a difference, too. When I buy lunch using Apple Pay, for example, my phone needs to be very close to the payment terminal. The near-field communication (NFC) signal won’t work more than few inches away—and for a payment application, you wouldn’t want it to.

Many municipalities are starting to deploy sensors to enable smart parking, smart street lighting, or even smart waste pickup. In many cases, the city can piggyback on its municipal Wi-Fi infrastructure to collect data, but in other cases, new low-cost LPWAN or cellular technologies can connect battery-powered devices and send the data using very little power over long periods of time.

Deciding on the right access technology is just the first step in designing IoT capabilities that drive efficiency and yield actionable insights and better decisions. In upcoming blogs, I’ll discuss the migration from proprietary technologies to open standards, where and when data should be analyzed, security concerns, and the evolving relationship between the central IT function and operational technology (OT) roles within the lines of business.


Maciej Kranz

Vice President and General Manager

Corporate Strategic Innovation Group