The Internet of Things
Simplifying life by connecting devices, people, and businesses
The Internet of Things (IoT) is a somewhat nebulous term associated with a plethora of technological advancements that are helping enhance the lives of consumers and business operations. IoT is essentially a computing concept that encompasses the idea of everyday physical objects—devices, vehicles, buildings, and other items—being connected to the internet and being able to identify themselves to other devices. These interconnected objects, which have unique identifiers, have the distinct capability of collecting and transferring data over a network without requiring human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction.
To Josh Lonn, GCI’s vice president of wireless products, IoT represents the “ability to enable virtually anything to connect to the rest of the world over the internet.” Many people think of IoT as smart refrigerators or self-driving cars, but he encourages people to think small when it comes to IoT. “The path to a Jetsons-like future will be paved with humble services, like those designed to monitor small children or pets, if you’re a consumer, or remote machinery or vehicles if you’re an enterprise,” he says.
The beauty of the IoT model is that it eliminates a lot of the grunt work from everyday tasks. A prime example of this is how Apple and Google democratized smart phones for the masses a decade ago. “In much the same way, pioneers in the IoT space are finding ways to automate and simplify traditionally manual, time-consuming tasks,” Lonn says. “Delivering this sort of smarts allows businesses to focus their precious human resources on more strategic or impactful tasks. And for consumers, it just plain makes life easier.”
Jim Gutcher of Alaska Communications also appreciates the utility of IoT. While IoT got its start in the manufacturing industry, it has evolved to the consumer space to include many things people use in their daily lives, says Gutcher, senior director of product management, marketing, and pricing.
With IoT, interrelated devices collect data and/or perform a function. The devices are connected to the internet, controlled by an application, and have a repository for the data they gather. For example, a fitness monitor collects data, while a smart light bulb takes an action. Regardless of function, a system of interrelated computing devices clearly enhances people’s lives. “Connected devices enable us to track our daily habits, monitor our health, manage our home energy use and security, and much more,” Gutcher says. “This data gives us the opportunity to make informed decisions in ways not possible in the past.”
A variety of technologies and devices converge to allow the functionality of IoT. A crucial element in the equation is the network—which can be wired or wireless—that is used to communicate between devices of an IoT installation. A device, obviously, is another common IoT component. Every device needs a sensor or sensors, a modem to communicate what it’s sensing back to the network, some sort of an embedded subscriber identification module (SIM), and a battery or power source. “The good news is that battery life has improved tremendously,” Lonn says. “In many cases, these things [devices] can live without being touched by a human for a very long time.”
The other important aspect of an IoT product is some sort of interface that aggregates—and converts into a usable format—collected data. Developers also need to think about if there is a software aspect, which is typical with IoT. Lonn says: “Developers need to think about the user experience they want to deliver and whether that involves the use of, say, a smartphone application or a desktop workstation… On the industrial side, there needs to be a way for a front-line employee to review the work and all the data.”
Over the years, the cost of the components required to facilitate IoT have been decreasing with technological advancements. And this makes implementing IoT more feasible for companies of all types and sizes. “The cost of accelerometers, barometers, and thermometers have fallen off a cliff due to advances in miniaturization, and radio module costs continue to drop as well, meaning you don’t necessarily need to be a large-cap company to launch an IoT product,” Lonn says.
Today, companies are increasingly placing sensors on devices to capitalize on IoT. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, for example, companies were intent on putting connected sensors into pretty much everything, Lonn says. “From smart parking spaces to skin patches that admonish you if you’ve had too much sun, the sky truly is the limit.”
However, the winners in the IoT space will be the companies that think carefully about what is most meaningful to users. Just because something is possible doesn’t mean there is a good business case behind it. Consequently, GCI is focused on delivering the best IoT access to customers in ways that benefit them the most. “That means we are looking at ways to harness our LTE wireless network and our world-class, hybrid fiber-coax plant to benefit Alaska’s consumer and enterprise markets in game-changing ways,” Lonn says.
How Companies Can Benefit from IoT
IoT can benefit a wide range of organizations. Manufacturing companies can place IoT sensors on equipment to measure factors such as voltage fluctuations, temperature, and vibration. The data can be fed into a platform for real-time monitoring, analytics, and alerts, which can expose hidden problems before they cause equipment failure. Gas and utility companies can use IoT-enhanced technology to support a smart grid that allows power meters to be read remotely and then analyze the data to prevent and respond to outages. These automated reporting processes can help simplify reporting tasks as well as improve decision making.
IoT can also be used by retail stores to improve inventory management, preventing lost sales and enhancing customer satisfaction. And educational institutions can enhance safety by using connected video cameras and facial recognition to identify visitors in real-time.
State and local government agencies can use IoT and analytics to gain insights in a variety of areas. For example, LED-enabled traffic lights can save considerable energy and, in the future, connected traffic lights will be able to automatically dispatch public safety personnel to motor vehicle accidents.
Application of IoT in Alaska
Like the rest of the nation, consumers and businesses in Alaska are capitalizing on IoT to make their lives easier. Consumer usage of IoT in Alaska is no different than anywhere else. “Alaskans enjoy the conveniences of smart watches and digital assistants as much as the next person,” Gutcher says. “Alaskans love to travel, and in some cases, live somewhere warmer for part of the year. Being able to check in on our homes while we’re away is an example of the value the IoT provides.”
The application of IoT in industrial, commercial, and infrastructure spaces is also becoming more prevalent in Alaska. In the industrial and manufacturing industries, IoT sensors connected to the internet have enabled a set of analytics that was not previously possible. “The IoT is transforming industries by enabling them to optimize operations, implement predictive processes, collect and analyze data, and make real-time decisions,” Gutcher says.
At GCI, Lonn is also seeing growing use of IoT in Alaska. For instance, he’s noticed a healthy demand for remote site monitoring and electronic control of work. That’s not surprising, given Alaska’s expansive geography. “Considering the sheer size of our state, services that enable our enterprise customers to reduce windshield time or low-payoff manual activities are those that have garnered the most near-term interest,” he says.
Industrial applications for IoT are also increasing in Alaska, primarily driven by the need to reduce costs and improve safety. “From mining, oil and gas, seafood, and transportation, we are seeing a growing demand for these services,” Lonn says.
A simple example of the application of IoT in the 49th State is the North Slope’s delivery of potable water and sewage removal. Water on the North Slope is expensive to harvest, treat, and deliver. “The use of sensors can help conserve water and better manage the delivery and removal, ensuring that it doesn’t run out or fill up,” Lonn explains.
IoT is being employed by state government agencies as well. For example, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOT&PF) is using Microsoft Azure IoT and the Fathym WeatherCloud solution to enhance its decision making about deploying road crews. WeatherCloud relies on mobile sensors placed on the interior windshield and bumper of maintenance vehicles. The sensors track road temperatures, humidity, precipitation, and wiper frequency, among other data. Azure’s cloud computing solution facilitates the process. With IoT, DOT&PF gains insight to make better ground-level decisions, saving lives and reducing road maintenance costs.
In addition to Microsoft Azure, there are a number of third-party solutions that organizations can use to capture the benefits of IoT. They include Cisco Kinetic IoT Platform, Intel IoT Platform, and Splunk Industrial Asset Intelligence.
IoT is constantly evolving. And the convergence of different technologies, real-time analytics, artificial intelligence (AI) machine learning, commodity sensors, and embedded systems is accelerating its evolution.
This is where things get “very exciting,” says Lonn, referring to the impact of the merging of different technologies and devices. As more sensors are deployed gathering more information, both human and machine learning make sense of aggregated data, which in turn makes the services more relevant and, therefore, used more and more frequently. “We have seen this network effect on the consumer side, as Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft race to integrate their respective AI into everything from phones to portable speakers,” he says.
Lonn is fascinated by the evolution of the digital personal assistant—manifest in products like Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Home—and how it is taking advantage of a diverse and increasingly-prevalent network of embedded sensors. “The more customers allow these sensors into every aspect of their daily lives, manual and machine learning allow them to grow ever more adept, and, thus, more useful,” he says. “It’s a virtual cycle that is advancing the state-of-the-art in ways that continue to delight those that embrace the technology. Alongside the benefits of these advances, developers have increased their focus on protecting personal privacy and data security.”
On the industrial side, IoT allows for smart maintenance—which can have a significant impact. Rather than replacing parts on a manufacturer’s recommended schedule, operators have the ability to replace them when needed or just-in-time. “Tiny trends can be spotted by the analytics and give better predictive knowledge,” Lonn says. “This reduces costs and improves uptime.”
From a trend-oriented standpoint, Gutcher anticipates the continued evolution and popularity of IoT. And this will enhance people’s reliance on broadband technology. “The foundation for the IoT is flexible, secure, and reliable broadband networks,” he says. “The demand for broadband will continue to increase as the IoT becomes a greater part of our everyday lives. There are four significant tech trends you may recognize in which broadband is the foundation: big data/storage, analytics and artificial intelligence, the internet of things, and mobility.”
So, what future developments can we expect with IoT? The sky is the limit, according to Gutcher. People are just scratching the surface of what can be connected through IoT. “As the IoT grows, the technology is not going to be the limitation,” he says. “The limitation will be the human factor, for example—security, privacy, user experience, and governance.”
However, IoT will continue to push advances in security, an increase in bandwidth needs, continued reliability, and reduced latency. And Alaska Communications is poised to address these areas, according to Gutcher. “With leading IT capabilities and a network built for reliability, the Alaska Communications network extends across the state to the Lower 48, bringing the highest level of technology, reliability, and security to Alaskans,” he explains.
The deployment of technology, however, must be strategic and driven by carefully-considered needs. That’s why GCI has a guiding principle to never deploy technology just for the sake of technology. “Many early instances of IoT fell into that trap,” Lonn explains. “Refrigerators that automatically warn you when the milk is about to go sour sound cool in concept, but are most consumers going to pay a premium for that type of intelligence?”
The companies that are going to win in the IoT space, Lonn says, are those that put customer benefit first. “As the cost of sensors and modems continues to drop, consumer and industrial use cases will continue to become more affordable, which means more people will be willing to give them a try,” he says.