What is the Internet of Things?
Only a decade ago, the number of devices connected to the internet was less than 1/7th of the world's total population. Today, there are three times that many devices connected to the internet or to each other.
By and large, the now commonplace buzzphrase "the Internet of Things", IoT for short, points to this phenomenon, its scale and implications for industry and everyday life. In many ways, the IoT is an old idea made possible by exponential improvements and efficiencies in communication speeds, data quantities and processing.
Increasing the magnitude of information processing enables an environment with more communicating devices than people. According to International data Corp., machine-generated data in 2021 is approximately 40% of all generated data. Soon enough, human-generated data will account for only a fraction of all data. The effects of this shift stand to transform the way we live our lives and the world around us.
In this post you will learn the basics of what makes the internet of things possible. I'll also discuss conceivable effects of its adoption on industry and society.
Curious about the topic, and want to learn from an expert? Join us on Crowdcast on January 26, 2020 at 6 pm to learn about the basics of IoT with Professor Xavier Fernando of Ryerson University. Registration is free. The talk will cover topics like autonomous vehicles, 5G and smart homes, followed by an audience Q&A. If you miss the live event, a video replay will also be available.
This post is part one of a three-part series exploring the IoT. This first part is about protocols and what they mean for the IoT. The next parts will discuss topics like sensors, the Industrial IoT and its implications for broader society.
To understand where the Internet of Things is going, it is important to understand the many ways devices can communicate with each other and exchange information. For example, in order for your computer to connect to the internet, it must first connect to a local area network through a router and a modem. Sometimes these come as one. The router routes the network to your home devices like laptop, phone etc. The modem establishes a connection to the internet through your Internet Service Provider (ISP), such as Bell or Rogers. This network is more or less bound to your house or apartment.
When you connect to the internet, your browser, such as Google Chrome or Firefox, sends an information request through the web address you entered, to the server containing the information. The server is another computer that could be anywhere in the world. Your computer packages the request into discreet bundles of information with the sender and receiver addresses. These reach your router as radio-waves, get converted into digital-bits and communicated to your modem. Finally, the modem transmits those information bits via a coaxial or an ethernet cable to a wide area network handled by your ISP. A wide area network is a network that allows devices to communicate over a much wider geographical space. Many wide area networks have to talk to each other in order for your request to reach the server. The server sends a signal back through similar channels.
Whew, that sounds a bit complicated.
The physical infrastructure required to make the internet work spans over devices, cables, radio antennas and, now, optic fibers. To ensure that signals get transferred successfully, physical devices, also known as nodes, must talk a common language. Different methods of transmission and communication require common languages, also known as standards and protocols.
I brought up the internet as a prominent example, but it is just one of many. Besides being able to connect to wifi, your smartphone can also connect to a mobile network when you're on the go. And it can connect to other nearby devices such as your headphones, speaker, or smart scale.
How does it do that? In a nutshell, through a hierarchy of standards and protocols. These establish connections at different frequency bands. Then they convert signals to meaningful information like music or video. When your mobile phone with a "data plan" accesses the internet, it connects to a mobile network. The protocols and physical infrastructure of that network have evolved to host broadband transmission. Broadband means capacity for a wide range of frequencies, called 4G, and in much of the rest of the world 3G. 5G, the latest generation has now launched in several countries worldwide. Your phone uses either the CDMA2000 or IEEE 802.16 protocols to connect to mobile broadband. These are different languages for transmitting a range of radio signals. Your home wifi connection, for example, uses the IEEE 802.11 protocol.
These protocols allow devices to access wide area networks. Other protocols like bluetooth and zigbee create short-range connections between devices. Bluetooth allows devices to exchange information. This could be between mobile phones or to connect to wireless earbuds, speakers or a smart wallet. Zigbee is generally used for low-data connections such as home automation systems. How are these protocols established and standardized? Through different organizational bodies. Some of these include:
- The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE)
- The American National Standards Institute (ANSI)
- The European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI)
- The International Standards Organization (ISO).
Why are protocols so important? Because they form the system of languages that allow devices to communicate with each other. If more and more devices have bluetooth capabilities, they can exchange information with each other. Like your smart scale talking to a fitness app on your phone. The evolution of broadband is behind the internet economy of amazon, online streaming and social media. This increased efficiency of telecommunications together with movement toward the universality of standards has and will continue to ease the abilities of devices to communicate to each other.
Learn more about protocols and standards
O'Reilly has a great array of resources from ebooks to videos accessible with a valid library card. You will be asked to sign in to review these resources.
Let's Learn Tech
Another great way to get started with the IoT are the free, interactive and self-paced let's learn tech courses offered through the TPL.
Please stay tuned for parts two and three in this series. Part two will delve into how sensors work, why they matter, and the adoption of the IoT in Industry. Part three will explore the effects of the IoT on broader society, its effects on consumers and personal identity. When these posts are published, the links will be added to this section.
I hope you will join us for An Introduction to the Internet of Things on January 26 at 6 pm!