Prepare for the Internet of Things

The coming leap in Machine-to-Machine communication will change our lives. 

By Elisa Oddone

Jordan is gearing up for another digital revolution. Home appliances, hospital equipment, and car control panels managed by smartphone apps and sensors used to be the stuff of science fiction, but are now quickly becoming a reality.

Machine-to-machine communication (M2M) is what runs under the banner of The Internet of Things (IoT) and its applications are limitless. Any natural or man-made object that can be assigned an IP address can now connect to the Internet; from a heart monitor implant, to a a biochip transponder inserted under the skin of a farm animal.

Some 3.5 billion devices are online today—a number that could soar to 50 billion in just over five years, according to Cisco. That’s on top of data centers with millions of computer servers, several billion mobile devices, and all the gaming devices, personal computers, and anything else with a chip inside.

“Our internal research indicates that by 2020, the Internet of Everything (another name for the IoT) will generate some $19 trillion worth of opportunity in terms of revenues and cost savings for all industries involved,” said Irfan Verjee, principal for the Cisco Service Provider Transformation Group.

Even though the IoT’s adoption in the Middle East is happening at a much slower rate than elsewhere in the world, the foundations for the industry’s eventual boom are already being put in place. “The whole ecosystem for the Internet of Things is still nascent at a global level,” said Ziad Matar, senior director of business development for the MENA region and South East Asia with the American chipmaker Qualcomm. “Despite the region’s delay, its interest in the sector is starting at the right time, possibly leading to more mature decisions based on the latest technological developments.”

The French telecom group Orange shares this outlook, though it stressed some fundamental requirements are still needed to be put in place to guarantee a solid implementation of the IoT. “The IoT will explode in the Middle East in the next few years,” said Orange Jordan CEO Jean-Francois Thomas. “Everything is ready and people are hungry for the application of this technology.”

One such example is Dubai, which is currently preparing to host World Expo 2020. In the next five years, the emirate is set to connect, coordinate, and manage its ground transport, national security and defense services, as well as travel and touristic assistance and other civil applications by leveraging the IoT. As a matter of fact, Dubai aims to become one of the world’s best connected cities by 2017, according to Cisco.

Room for Improvement

Built on cloud computing and networks of data-gathering sensors, M2M communication is a mobile, virtual, and instantaneous connection. Cloud-based applications are the key to using leveraged data. The IoT doesn’t function without cloud-based applications to interpret and transmit the data coming from all these sensors. The cloud is what enables the apps to work for consumers anytime, anywhere.

The need for an enhanced, more efficient technological infrastructure to run the IoT means its improvement is more urgent than ever. But there still is a long road ahead.

One problem is the current lack of compatibility between systems. The IoT still lacks its own html and there are no common platforms or standards available for it to run on. This raises questions about how different devices can connect and communicate with one another. Another obstacle is the insufficient spectrum of frequencies available for all these myriad of devices to operate on.

Thomas believes it would behove governments to facilitate these basic requirements. “Governments should look at the evolution of the IoT as an overall benefit for the country,” he said. “Governments would benefit indirectly through savings and an enhanced agility in the way they manage services by allowing the use of frequencies at low cost to develop a suitable ecosystem for the IoT.”

Omar Omoush, Umniah’s marketing director, said governments should guarantee investment, entrepreneurship, and flexible regulations to allow the sector to push forward. “This is especially needed in the Kingdom, where regulations are stifling businesses and causing many of them to relocate outside, and where we should work further and establish more 4G services,” he said.

His view was echoed by Cisco’s Verjee. “There should be a small number of flexible and smart regulations on the government’s side to allow the industry to develop competitively,” he said. “It should provide better and stable electricity, help open extra frequencies for wifi, allow permanent roaming, consider licensing for NVNO, and expand the spectrum of frequencies.”

Users are also another key element for IoT development, especially since its framework of operation has not been standardized yet. “It is going to be a kind of jungle for a while in which only the fittest framework will survive and its natural selection would be left up to the consumers,” Thomas said.

Revolutionizing Jordan

In Jordan, Umniah is already providing consumers with a chance to live in a smart home. According to Omoush, his company can connect anything inside homes in the Kingdom. “Everything can be ruled by sensors; doors, heaters, lights, and water heaters. Everything can be controlled via the [Umniah] app downloaded on your smartphone.”

Prices for such systems are affordable, he said, as they depend on the package chosen by the client. Packages begin from around $1,500 for seven different services and installation, plus a monthly subscription fee of $6.

As the technology evolves, so does our dependence on the Internet, leaving people increasingly interested in services like IoT. This means products are losing their luxury status, and their cost is steadily declining.

“Those who choose these services are middle class people, they don’t belong to the wealthiest echelons of society. We are talking about individuals living in apartments and not large villas,” said Omoush.

But IoT’s infusion is also heading more and more towards businesses.

Earlier this year, Umniah launched its Video Analytics Monitoring Solution for retailers with just a niche market in mind. But this has not been the case as the service has been widely adopted. “What we observed in the past months has been amazing,” Omoush said. “This is due to the fact that Jordan is a high-tech country despite its low GDP. People are hungry for technological solutions.”

By using this service, which can count and profile people, register the human traffic flow, audience attention, as well as intrusion and loitering attempts, retailers can learn more about their customers and use the information they collect to provide better services. “Asian countries like Japan, Korea, and China are a step forward in the implementation of such services,” Omoush said. “Surprisingly, they are also just starting to spread throughout the United States. Jordan has so far had a pioneering role in their implementation in the region.”

The IoT is also bringing in a host of new collaborations and partnerships, something that isn’t always easy to achieve in the region. Providers are now unanimously calling  for dialogue between different stakeholders to make sure that investments chime their goal, avoiding more sector fragmentation.

“This is a story of partnerships and collaboration not only between vendors and service providers, but mostly about strategic partnerships between the agents of innovation,” Verjee said.

The IoT is about the interpolation of computer hardware and software into many applications, so it’s also necessary that providers partner and start discussing security.

All the new connected devices give hackers potential opportunities to break into home products such as security systems, monitoring cameras, and smart TVs. Guarantees on security and data privacy need to grow together with the development of the IoT to protect consumers from harmful intrusion into their lives. “We took a lot of precautions to protect the privacy of the customers in the services we provide,” Omoush said. “The information we collect while monitoring the shops are only linked to clients as persons interacting with the store: their preferences, gender, and in what areas of the shop they spend more time. We don’t intrude on the person’s privacy. But this possible violation is a hot topic concerning these services.”

A new data economy is also growing out of the Internet revolution’s poster children. Young people who grew up surrounded by social media are sharing more information about themselves online than their older counterparts. And for the economically-minded, that means it’s high time to take advantage of that.

“Now data is going to be exchanged between entities and it will carry a certain amount of monetary value,” Verjee said. “What will happen in the future, and what companies are currently working on is to create some control for the users over the data they publicly share and create some form of monetization from them. These are the times of total connectivity.”