The Internet-Connected Things Are Getting Their Own Network

A low-power, low-bandwidth network for things is getting ready for the future of connected everything.

May 16 2014, 3:10pm
Image: Arqiva

The Internet of Things is slowly taking over; it’s in our homes, our cities, our bodies, and the things themselves are on their way to outnumbering us three to one. Now, the things are getting their own dedicated network.

UK communications company Arqiva today announced that it will rollout an IoT network across the country, starting with ten major cities. That infrastructure will be separate from existing networks; it’s just for the things. It will also enable connection to other IoT networks that already exist in places including France, Spain, and the Netherlands, as if the idea of things “talking” to each other locally wasn’t still enough to get your head around.

While internet-connected things (usually stuff with a sensor stuck in it) could theoretically use the kind of networks we already have in place, like wifi or 3G, it’s not ideal. As anyone whose iPhone has died after a matter of just hours knows, connecting to wifi drains a battery fast—and no one wants to go around plugging in their newly communicative possessions all the time. 

There’s also just no need for the kind of capacity those networks provide when you’re talking about the gadgets most of the Internet of Things consists of. Unlike your smartphone, sensors don’t need to be able to send Snapchat selfies and cat videos to each other; they just need to transfer small amounts of data. Using an existing network would therefore be a waste of money and power.

While some researchers have suggested ways of “piggybacking” on existing wireless signals, Arqiva is clearly making a play to get an IoT network up and running in the hope to making it the standard connectivity model. 

The company is working with technology by Sigfox, which uses “ultra-narrowband” tech to connect the things. “It will essentially be a piece of work that’s similar to building a new mobile network, just using a slightly different technology,” said Wendy McMillan, who runs the division of Arqiva responsible for machine-to-machine services. The network uses a different spectrum, and low bandwidth.

To use the network, devices would need a Sigfox chip (see why it’s a good idea to build the network early on, before the things have completely taken over?). With the rollout of networks in other countries, more and more devices are getting Sigfox-enabled, which means they’ll be able to just plug-in-and-play. So far these things include parking sensors, billboards, and alarms. 

And as the Sigfox networks build up, there’s also the opportunity for the things to use roaming, and connect to a local network if they’re off travelling. “You start to be able to create a pan-European network which uses similar technology and similar devices,” said McMillan. She gave the example of the logistics sphere, and tracking freight that’s being moved around. “If you are moving that to another country that has a Sigfox network, you could potentially track its location in a different place.”

If things go to plan, it sounds like the things might soon be better connected than we are.