SAN FRANCISCO — Say there’s a power outage.
The old way of doing business for a power company would be to wait for a customer to call in and report it. Then the company would send out crews to figure out the problem and fix it.
The new way of doing business might be to receive an automatic notification from the meters of every home and business without power. Sensors can help the company figure out where along the distribution system the problem is, and the company has access to a map that tells it where every one of its technicians are, which ones are closest to the problem, and which ones have the tools and training to fix it.
That’s a real-life example — something possible through a platform launched Wednesday in San Francisco. The scenario involves several existing databases being connected together in one application, which could be done through Verizon’s new ThingSpace platform. The telecommunications giant envisions ThingSpace as a platform meant to break down barriers that developers face in entering the Internet of Things (IoT) market. Through ThingSpace, developers will be able to access APIs, find the right systems to build the sensors they need, connect data to the cloud, and add analytical processing capacity and security.
In short, it’s meant to jump-start the development and deployment of technology that will connect everyday objects together in an effort to deliver better services, solve problems and comply with government policy.
Verizon aims to do much of that through cost-cutting. Senior Vice President of Enterprise Products Mike Lanman said at the launch event that a major issue is connectivity — that is, the actual coupling of devices to the IoT. That requires access to the Internet, and that costs money. Verizon plans on using its existing 4G LTE network to provide Internet access to IoT technology and is putting out chips that should cut the cost of connecting to its network in half.
“You will see us in  halve this price again with some of the modules we’re launching,” Lanman said.
Its new IoT core should bring costs down further.
“We’ll be launching a new IoT core in the first quarter of next year that allows us to connect devices [using] new IoT profiles at a much lower cost,” Lanman said. “So we can not only compress the chip cost to get in, but our new IoT core, super-efficient, [will allow] new use cases. Whether you’re connecting your dog, connecting your water meter — any of the low-payload devices that are out there in the marketplace will be able to handle through the new IoT core and do it at a much lower cost.”
The company is also going to offer its data analytics engine, previously used in-house for business customers such as those in the beverage and auto industries, to developers, along with security systems. By bringing all of those pieces together, the hope is to make the whole process of bringing an IoT technology to market — hardware selection, connectivity, software development, analytics, deployment — go more smoothly, and that the IoT will grow much faster.
“The market’s having to navigate complex and expensive back-end systems integration, a fragmented ecosystem of solution providers and a lack of standards,” Mark Bartolomeo, vice president of IoT connected solutions at Verizon, said during the event. “We see ThingSpace as pulling together this fragmentation and making available in a single solution all of Verizon’s assets — connectivity, platform and applications.”
To drive the point home, the company exhibited a showroom full of IoT possibilities, some of which are already on the market and some of which are promised for the future. The power outage example involved a few of them — Verizon has an application that government entities and companies can use to track fleet vehicles, find out which ones aren’t being used and read odometers. It also has a smart meter application that keeps track of voltage levels, which can portend equipment failures, along with outages.
Another Verizon project in a California vineyard has potential to fit in with a desperate need to conserve water in the state. Paul Clifton of Monterey County’s Hahn Family Wines said at the event that the company helped set up a series of sensor stations around the vineyard that monitor soil moisture, wind speed and direction, and more.
“It’s taken us away from what has traditionally been calendar-based irrigations to more targeted integration on our properties,” Clifton said. “So we’re able to accurately gauge with a series of soil monitors throughout the vineyard, every 12 inches down in the root zone, and figure out how much water is being delivered to the vine, whether the root actually needs water.”
That means water savings in a state that’s in the middle of a historic multi-year drought. Not only has the state mandated water usage cuts for residents and businesses, but the draft Safeguarding California published Oct. 9 calls for the agriculture industry as a whole to develop long-term water conservation techniques in anticipation of a warming climate. Much of that involves better use of technology.
For Hahn, it not only means using less water, but improving the company’s bottom line. Better watering means a higher yield and higher-quality wine. Because the sensors monitor humidity and other factors on top of soil moisture, they can also alert the company to vine killers.
“We can figure out, basically raise an alarm where we may have rot or we may have mildew, and we can take corrective action, versus the more traditional method being we’re going to spray … fungicide every two weeks,” Clifton said. “And that’s the way we’ve been doing it for 50 years.”
There were regulatory compliance solutions too. A pharmacy industry representative spoke about using the IoT to meet a mandate from the U.S. government that drug makers and wholesalers track shipments of medication along the entire supply chain. Using sensors, pharmaceutical companies can keep real-time maps of shipment locations and monitor the temperature inside trucks carrying meds that need to be kept cold. Sensors can also track when the inside of a truck has been exposed to light, which would indicate the door being opened. If that happens in the middle of a drug shipment’s journey, it could be a red flag for crime.
Daniel Feldman, Verizon’s director of IoT, smart cities and agriculture technology, stood near a street lamp in the showroom eagerly explaining to passersby how an app lets him dim or brighten the bulb remotely, change the color of a notification light on the pole and keep track of the light’s status. Because the company can come back and add new sensors to the light pole, it could add a light sensor that measures sunlight and brightens the bulb as it gets darker outside.
“There’s a lot of savings just in the fact that you can dim the bulb [as it] responds to its environment,” he said.
Then there was Innova, a car-share company that has launched a pilot on college campuses throughout the country. The company wants to put electric vehicles on city streets, two-person cars small enough that three can be fit into a single parking space. The cars are connected to an app that users can consult to find nearby vehicles and their level of battery charge, then reserve one. Innova wants to work its car-sharing program into government in places like military bases and national parks. Conceivably, tourists could be asked to leave their cars outside of national parks, then hop into an electric vehicle and listen to an audio tour through the speakers.
The company also has autonomous vehicles on its road map for the future.
Basically, there’s a lot of room for growth.
“We really believe that the market is underserved today,” Verizon’s Lanman said. “When you look at corporations, those that have deployed IoT solutions, they’ve [realized] a lot of improvement in their profitability because they’re cutting costs out and they’re managing their environments at a much faster pace, but they’re still underserved with the solutions that are in-market. If you look at cities, municipalities, they have tremendous opportunities to cut costs and provide better standard of living to their citizens, but they’re underserved with the way IoT is executing today.”
Ben Miller is the business beat staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.