The rapid developments in IoT technology are bringing the promise of an exciting and convenient future. Soon nearly every piece of technology we use will be part of an always-on, always-connected web of smart sensors and data feedback devices. That, in turn, will enable things like self-driving vehicles, real-time telemedicine, and advanced personal robotics. It will also unleash a torrent of data traffic across the Internet.
That’s significant because the Internet is a pretty congested network already. For those unfamiliar with global Internet traffic patterns, it can be difficult to visualize the sheer scope of the data that traverses the Internet every second (although a decent layman’s visualization can be found here). Put simply, to accommodate the IoT revolution, the Internet is going to need an upgrade. To that end, there’s a partial solution on the way, but there’s also a big hurdle that must be overcome—and nobody’s talking about it.
The promise of 5G networks
Ask any IoT evangelist about how to prepare the Internet for the explosion in data traffic that IoT devices are likely to produce, and you’ll usually get the same answer: 5G wireless networks. This is essentially true—the next generation of cellular networking will be a great leap forward in terms of data throughput, scalability, and decreased latency.
Compared to current wireless technology, 5G networks are expected to increase data throughput by a factor of 10 – bringing multi-gigabit speeds to mobile devices. That means that 5G is well-suited for IoT devices, but it’s far from the most important feature. For the IoT to grow as expected, 5G networks will need to handle far greater device density, and it appears that they can. The 5G specification indicates that 1 million connected devices per .38 square miles will be possible, compared with only 2,000 today.
An aging foundation
But the question remains: Once 5G networks provide connectivity to billions of new IoT devices, where does all of the new traffic go? The wireless network itself will absorb some of the traffic, particularly for point-to-point communications and short-range radio applications, but the bulk of it will be routed onto the existing traditional network infrastructure. That is going to expose the Achilles’ heel of the modern Internet (especially in the U.S.).
Today’s Internet exists mostly as an interconnected web of privately owned networks that handle the bulk of data transmission worldwide. The problem is that there are no real standards for those private companies to adhere to in terms of capacity, and many haven’t kept up with demand. The issue boils down to a lack of fiber-optic cable deployments. They are the current industry standard for high-speed data transmission, and there simply aren’t enough already deployed to handle a surge in traffic.
The global response
Depending on where in the world you look, you will see different approaches to upgrading Internet infrastructure. Some countries, like Australia, have started to deploy fiber- optic networks as national infrastructure. Australian citizens link to the Internet via competing NBN plans that are already available nationwide. In Japan, the government is funding development of fiber-optic networks and technology to meet the anticipated new demand. In the U.S., however, a complicated mix of competing public and private interests are slowing progress to a crawl.
Despite being the birthplace of the Internet, the U.S. has long lagged other developed nations in key network and infrastructure metrics. In fact, there’s been a distinct lack of investment in rural areas for years. To make matters worse, industry experts believe that the U.S. will need upwards of $150 billion in additional investments to build out a fiber-optic infrastructure that can handle the load in the age of the IoT.
So far, there has been little national response. The federal government has a bill inching through Congress that would require fiber-optic conduits to be a part of any future federally funded road construction project – but the bill has been in limbo since 2009. The rest has been left up to private industry, which has not increased infrastructure spending in any significant way. The next steps for the major stakeholders aren’t yet clear, and the clock is ticking.
The IoT at risk
As more IoT devices come to market, the strain on the global Internet will become more apparent. So, too, will the relative merits of the varied approaches that have been taken to upgrade global infrastructure. The race is already on. Estimates indicate an expected 125 billion IoT devices to be online by 2030, and current networks are nowhere near ready to accommodate them. In addition, current demand for fiber-optic cable is outstripping supply, so it is far from clear if the pace of expansion can even be increased. Only time will tell if a combination of upgrades, innovation, and more than a little luck will be enough to sustain the IoT future. If not, we can all look forward to nothing more than a frustrating experience with the BoT—Bottleneck of Things.
To learn more about the promise of the IoT future, check out Enabling 20 Billion Devices Through The Internet of Things.