For a few years now, experts and commentators have been foretelling an explosion in the growth of the internet of things (IoT). The reality is they picked the wrong analogy. IoT technology is less like a big bang and more like a rising tide.
And while it may have started small, IoT technology is now making big waves as it sweeps through business and industry, driven not just by the enabling network technology but also by the availability of low-cost network edge devices.
The upcoming rollout of 5G networks will add further to its momentum, but in the meantime, the global pandemic caused by the COVID-19 is also serving to bring IoT deployments to the forefront. Indeed, in these times of emergency, the speed at which mobile IoT networks can be set up and turned operational will no doubt cause many companies to question the pace of their own IoT-influenced digital transformation projects.
Take the example of under-pressure healthcare facilities. Around the world, we are seeing the transformation of convention centers, sports arenas and pop-up tented villages into state-of-the-art medical centers. These centers need more than just beds and Wi-Fi. They need advanced, high performance, high security, machine-to-machine and machine-to-control center communications over advanced, dedicated LTE mobile networks.
Unlike ordinary Wi-Fi or cellular connections optimized for download speeds and streaming services, the connections at these centers also demand fast upload speeds to enable high-definition images to be quickly and efficiently sent back to the main hospital or to other intelligent devices. Machine-to-machine communications embrace artificial intelligence and machine learning so that the end devices can be monitored, managed and adjusted without human intervention.
Now, private Gigabit LTE networks have been provisioned virtually overnight to allow these temporary healthcare centers to quickly become operational. These facilities house complex medical equipment and monitoring systems and they need to gather and securely share sensitive personal patient data, both within the facility and back to the sponsoring healthcare provider.
Modern IoT devices and network technology are underpinning this drive. We are talking high-speed gigabit-class LTE connections, dual path wireless modems with link redundancy and traffic load management, edge security systems, firewall protection and internet content filtering. These are sophisticated, highly technical, enterprise-ready secure private mobile IoT networks that are being created and delivered in a matter of days.
And it’s not just within medical centers such as the pop-up facilities. The healthcare emergency has also led to an increase in the use of remote telemedicine applications. Retired doctors are coming back online to help with more routine conditions and diagnoses; and hospitals in areas less affected by the virus are also making staff available on a remote working basis.
Again, standard communications networks and devices are not up to the job required. They don’t have the available two-way bandwidth, nor the end-to-end security required to handle sensitive patient data.
Gigabit LTE links give remote doctors reliable and secure at-home and remote office connections that can isolate their extremely sensitive traffic from other local networks while also providing the bandwidth required to support real-time video and exceptionally large data files such as chest X-rays. Remote medical care, diagnosis and even surgery has been advanced as one of the potential applications for 5G network technology and the speed at which the field hospitals have been established and remote medical care introduced is providing powerful evidence of the potential for cellular IoT technology. Again, IoT devices and routers are very quickly provisioning and delivering this connectivity across multiple sites.
Of course, the uptake of remote and home working has also become the new reality for millions of office workers during the coronavirus crisis. And while apps like Zoom, Blue Jeans and Microsoft Teams have attracted attention and seen an exponential rise in their usage, not all that attention has been positive.
Questions have been raised about the security of some of the popular video calling services and with remote workers in both the public and private sector now often being asked to handle mission-critical data and sensitive customer or citizen information outside of their secure organizational networks. This new operating model is potentially too open to attack from hackers and fraudsters.
IoT routers and edge devices are providing the firewall protection and secure virtual private network (VPN) connectivity that turns at-home networks into extensions of the secure enterprise network. This keeps the data safe and ensures that remote office workers can access everything they need quickly and efficiently.
A crisis situation is often said to bring out the best in people. Maybe it can be said that it also brings out the best in technology. The speed at which the IoT industry, its devices and its network technology has been able to respond to the heightened requirements caused by the global pandemic is remarkable.
When the crisis finally passes, it is unlikely that the world will return to operating in exactly the same way as before. The remote working genie is certainly out of the bag, and the value of video conferencing has received an awareness boost that its providers will no doubt welcome. Even the Mother of Parliaments in the United Kingdom is returning to work with a video conferencing flavor.
And as business and industry resume, those who had marked their IoT projects as too costly, too difficult and too slow to realize might just be rethinking that verdict.