Fibre optics and the Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a vague yet fascinating concept which intrigues most people, yet few understand its full nature and close relationship with the deployment of fibre optics.

The Internet of Things: What is it?

In a nutshell, the Internet of Things involves smart, connected devices and the technology to allow these networked devices to interact and communicate with one another. Real world and everyday objects with embedded sensors that can communicate wirelessly constitute the ‘things’ including vehicles, machines, buildings, people, animals, goods and the broader Environment.

The use of IoT comprises home sensors and smart appliances, such as refrigerators and washing machines automatically switching on or contacting the manufacturer when they need servicing. Sensors embedded in smart vehicles will communicate via sensors in the urban environment to warn drivers of upcoming traffic jams and then automatically provide alternative routes and identify available parking spaces close to the destination.

In the health industry, wearable and telehealth monitors will warn of medical conditions, and keep track of vital statistics while enabling the remote diagnosis of some illnesses. Recently, the term “Internet of Everything” has also been used to describe the imagined hyperconnected nature of everything. This includes everything from cell phones, coffee makers, washing machines, headphones, lamps, wearable devices and almost anything conceivable. Smart devices will interpret data and fine-tune its capabilities over time and the ability to communicate with other objects and with people will become the norm. Consequently,
machine-to-machine (M2M), machine-to-person (M2P) and person-to-person (P2P) will be part of future communication.
What drives the key technologies of the Internet of Things is the miniaturisation of sensors that need small amounts of power and can connect to wireless networks, either through Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. In the future a growing variety of applications will be controlled and monitored through pervasive smartphones.

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Fibre networks and IoT

Although on its own the Internet of Things applications currently being planned will not generate the traffic needed to completely fill gigabit fibre pipes, but will add to network demands from other applications, driving a need for cost-effective, reliable and high-speed connections in both the home and business environments. The key drivers include:

Adding to bandwidth

IoT devices will be sending very small amounts of data which will not necessitate a need for additional Fibre to the Home or Fibre to the Premises connections. However, cheap connectivity alongside the handling of other applications such as streaming 4K/UltraHD TV, HD video conferencing, telehealth and cloud-based storage are required. The availability of home wireless networks is thus crucial to the development IoT and is driving its immediate growth.

The anticipated scale of adoption is potentially large since Gartner estimates that the average family home will contain more than 500 smart devices by 2022, and Ericsson reckons that 50 billion devices will be connected to the Internet by 2020 which will roughly be ten times more as people online. There will be multiple streams of data being produced every second of every day and while small, much of the data is time-critical, and needs to be delivered immediately. For example, alerts from systems such as fire or intruder alarms need to reach people quickly.

In-building fibre deployments

The Internet of Things will impact manufacturing and supply chains and factories and warehouses will increase efficiency by controlling machines remotely, particularly in potentially hazardous or noisy situations. Fibre optic cables will provide the best means of transferring data around a facility when environmental conditions will not allow wireless networks to operate. Thus, IoT will stimulate the growth of in-building fibre deployments in industries and residential areas that are wirelessly inaccessible.

Fibre sensors

Fibre will also provide the actual sensor itself used in Internet of Things applications due to its ability to measure across a wide frequency band. Because of its good light transmission performance, fibre is being used in areas where sensitivity and high performance are key. For example, China is already researching the use of optical fibre sensors in monitoring intelligent electricity substations.

Preparing for the Internet of Things

The widespread adoption of the applications will take time but is accelerating particularly within the home market. Google, Samsung, and Apple are backing and launching several intelligent products. Additionally, differentiation in competitive markets and additional revenues are driven by the IoT and it thus is providing opportunities to carriers by enabling the launching of new services that provide IoT equipped devices to consumers.

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