As we enter 2016, I can’t help but reflect on the staggering success and take up of the Internet of Things (IoT), which refers to any device able to connect to the Internet. Mobile penetration is booming, broadband access continues to soar, more and more devices are being developed with sensors and wireless capability built in, while the cost of the technology and connectivity continues to plummet.
All of these factors are driving the vast appetite for the IoT, translating into new business models, increased productivity, growing prosperity and new opportunities.
The IoT after all is one of the defining and transformative technologies of our time. Yet, while it is already making huge efficiency and productivity gains in the industrialized world, we cannot overlook the potential for even greater and more significant impact in the developing world.
With over 700 million people or 9.6% of the world’s population living in extreme poverty (below USD $ 1.90 per day) it’s hard not to see the imperative. The ability to impact millions, if not billions, of lives for the better is within our grasp and is an opportunity we can’t afford to miss. This is why Cisco and the ITU have contributed to a discussion and new joint report, Harnessing the Internet of Things for Global Development for the UN Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development.
Simple sensors save lives.
For example, IoT devices are improving sanitation for local communities and increasing efficiency and ensuring greater operating up time by monitoring critical water, sanitation and health equipment. And in Kenya, connected sensors monitor and automatically report faulty refrigerators in medical centers to ensure medicines do not go off and that replacement parts are directed to needy facilities in the shortest possible time – saving lives and resources while reducing cost for those combating life threatening diseases.
So how do we grasp one of the most important technological evolutions of our time for the developing world, and ensure we do not create a new digital divide?
It’s easier than we may think: there is no vast mountain to climb, no great chasm to cross, no global money pot to tap and no great unknown infrastructure to invent and build. The elements required mostly already exist.
The developed world’s demand for IoT technologies and connectivity means that IoT devices are now readily available, affordable and scalable for the developing world: providing the perfect platform to kick start emerging economies and provide much improved quality of life.
IoT R&D costs have been, and continue to be, borne by a hungry developed world market and there is little effort in “tweaking” IoT devices for the developing world. In fact, IoT devices are increasingly common, affordable and easy replaceable making them a de facto new commodity. And, complex new infrastructure is not immediately required or necessary for developing markets as a core infrastructure is readily available and provides a digital backbone to build upon – 95% of the world’s population has 2G coverage and 65% 3G coverage.
Interconnectedness is ultimately the key to increased usage and benefits. Fortunately, interoperability between devices is increasing, making operating and synchronizing a variety of “incompatible” devices possible and practical.
As for scalability, IoT devices are designed to be scalable. Many devices are now simple Plug & Play, making them easy to install and maintain. Reduced and alternate power supplies, like solar, wind and even changes in environmental factors such as moisture, can maintain sensors and networks where there is no consistent electricity supply, making them ideal for locations with irregular or unavailable grid power.
So the elements for a hyper connected IoT environment are here to be built upon – but without the proper foundation they may be unable to take hold and thrive. That’s where forward thinking governments can help. The markets have developed the technology and absorbed initial device costs; it’s now time for government policies supporting private sector initiatives, innovation and investment for the developing world.
In this regard, there are three key elements to achieving global success and delivering on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) mandate of a world without poverty.
First, we must act now. As was the case with voice telephony and the Internet, we run the risk of creating a new digital divide with IoT. This is avoidable if we move quickly. The elements are in place for us to create an environment where all economies and societies benefit from a truly IoT interconnected world. We cannot take this for granted. Let’s embrace it. I urge leaders in the developing world to seize the opportunity and, working with the private sector, prioritize a digital future for their nations and ensure the IoT takes root and thrives.
Second, invest early. Make necessary spectrum available to connect the wide range of diverse IoT devices. Encourage industry to develop, adopt, and use global standards that will enable interoperable and lower cost devices. Support the investment in the infrastructure necessary for local data centers such as reliable and quality electricity, skilled labor and, where necessary, incentives for investment. And, support and foster global data flow among data centers to take advantage of scale, reliability and lower costs. By increasing the spectrum available to accommodate the increased traffic and connectivity and encouraging next generation data centers, countries can position themselves to take full advantage, both now and in the future, of the exponential growth in devices and data.
Finally, create, build and maintain trust. Without the belief that data is secure and will benefit all users, citizens, companies and the public sector, adoption and use of IoT will be slowed. Governments can mitigate this risk by engaging early with the private sector to foster the development and implementation of robust security technologies to keep data safe, networks secure and users reassured.
The world has a unique opportunity to raise the quality of life for millions, if not billions of people across the developing world and short circuit a new digital divide. The key is to accelerate the development and deployment of IoT across the developing world.