The term “Internet of Things” has been around since the late 1990s and basically describes objects — such as books, clothing bodies — linked to the Internet to help keep track of them, follow their movements, do instant inventories, or even allow those objects to interact automatically with one another. And while digital objects like smartphones can announce their GPS location on the Internet, objects such as books, glasses, car keys, refrigerators and the like need some help to make the leap from analog object to digital presence. There has been some progress in that regard. For example, libraries are using RFID chips to track and inventory books and more.
But the Internet of things — like electric vehicles — currently lacks the infrastructure necessary for broad deployment. One infrastructure piece was fixed in 2011, when the last of 4.3 billion Internet addresses was assigned, and a new system of addresses (called IPv6, or Internet Protocol version 6) – with billions of billions of new addresses — began the long process of taking over. The missing piece for the Internet of things is inexpensive wireless broadband that could handle millions of devices that want to communicate.
Several recent developments, however, might help to network smart objects. At a recent meeting in San Diego, for example, local government CIOs discussed the new Nationwide Public Safety Network recently funded with a $7 billion grant as part of the Obama administration’s payroll-tax-cut legislation. Seattle CIO Bill Schrier – who had just come from a meeting on the subject with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration – said that while a nationwide rollout would require some $30 to $40 billion, state and local governments might be allowed to contribute existing infrastructure to the project in lieu of cash. Currently 21 jurisdictions have the green light, with Harris County, Texas, out in the lead using homeland security funding. “This is a data network, not a voice network,” said Schrier, “and it won’t replace push-to-talk; it replaces aircards.”
As the network rolls out, it could have broader applications than public safety. According to Schrier, this network could also be used by “second responders” — those who clean up after a disaster — as well as by transit, utilities and public works. The network theoretically could be used commercially for smart-grid projects by privately owned electric utilities. However, public safety will have priority, so in an emergency, other users would be kicked off.
Fresno, Calif., CIO Carolyn Hogg, when she heard Schrier’s talk in San Diego, said “I almost fell out of my chair.” Hogg is in the midst of a project to bring together resources to develop a rural broadband network for an Internet of agricultural sensors in California’s Central Valley. A public safety wireless data network might somehow fill some gaps, such as for monitoring crop safety and contamination. The eight-county San Joaquin Valley region in California’s Central Valley feeds an estimated one-third of the planet, said Hogg, and supports 350 different types of crops. Careful monitoring of soil, moisture, pesticides, bugs, diseases and other factors could potentially double crop yield and provide a productive research environment that could benefit agriculture around the world. But doing it would require wireless broadband. So Hogg is part of an initiative to cobble together education, health-care and agriculture funding to get it done.
And finally, last week the European Commission released a type of request for information on the Internet of things, saying that “boosting the Internet of things is a priority for the Digital Agenda for Europe.” According to the release, the average person has at least two objects connected to the Internet and this is expected to grow to seven by 2015 — with 25 billion wirelessly connected devices on the planet. The release went on to say that everyday objects will be linked and — in a rather odd example — if a university professor is ill and cannot teach a morning class, students’ alarm clocks and coffee machines could automatically be reset, giving them an extra hour in bed.
At Issue: Is the Internet of things finally going to happen? And if so, what will be its biggest value?