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Q&A: The importance of standardisation in IoT deployment

Following commissioned research by Machina Research, findings uncovered that city authorities and their technology partners could squander $341 billion by 2025 if they adopt a fragmented versus standardised approach to IoT solution deployment.

Incorporating a number of vertical domains, multiple parties, and diverse IT systems, smart cities are a microcosm and good illustration of the wider IoT. As such, they reflect the financial and operational risks associated with fragmentation and complexity in IoT deployments.

Here Alan Carlton VP, of InterDigital, explains why this fragmentation has occurred and what industry bodies and organisations must do to ensure the continuous evolution of IoT.

  1. According to the recent Machina research commissioned by InterDigital, $341BN could be wasted on non-standardised IoT deployments in smart cities, tell us more about the research.

The research looked at the cost and [infrastructure] complexities of fragmentation in smart cities. We used smart cities as they represent a microcosm of IoT in that deployments touch many verticals, involving various parties and IT systems.

By illustrating the fragmentation within smart cities, we were able to draw strong conclusions highlighting the benefits adopting an open standards approach would have. Through this we realised the importance of open standards, but the complexities of fragmentation occurring as a result of non-standardisation are often overlooked.

  1. Which aspects of smart cities drive cost complexities?

The complex nature of smart cities means that cost considerations span across various verticals; from device installation through to application adoption, a fragmented approach only increases the cost complexities. Standardisation across these areas would see a significant reduction across all streams of IoT revenue.

Yet cost isn’t just about the bottom line savings. The additional benefits brought by standardisation will extend beyond quantifiable cost savings, seen in the added functionalities brought about by lessened fragmentation. These ‘soft benefits’ – for example, allowing for the provision of better services or creating opportunities for application developers. It will have a knock on effect on the overall development and evolution of smart cities.

  1. You mention current smart cities more closely resemble M2M. What do cities need to do now to ensure they are smart rather than simply connected?

Smart cities today are primarily using bespoke systems that don’t connect to the outside world and which, as a result, don’t allow for the sharing of open data. They are using connected rather than smart infrastructure and devices. If smart cities are to become truly smart and connected, we need to see an end to the single purpose M2M operational model so often applied inside these currently isolated ecosystems.

At the moment, an increasing number of public organisations are looking into smart city initiatives to enhance town infrastructure and planning - a desire most clearly expressed in the open-urban platforms MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) - yet what they are being confronted with is an M2M rather than an IoT solution. With so many different existing standards and collaboration between local authorities sometimes difficult, fragmentation becomes a big issue which is often overlooked. If cities are to become smart, a line in the sand must be drawn and those responsible at public sector organisations must cross it together to invoke a single standards framework to integrate within different system architectures and infrastructures.

The consequences otherwise are that they are quickly going to find what they have bought into will not be fit for purpose when different aspects of the city become smart. It will be a make do and mend approach rather than anything strategic. These inevitable delays and retrofitting will lead to unnecessary expenditure and harm the quality of the services delivered.

  1. Do you think vendors need to do more to better inform local authorities before procurement decisions are taken?

Absolutely. All businesses are under commercial pressures, but no one is going to benefit from a public authority making a poor purchasing decision. Future procurement will be even more difficult to get approved and ultimately the tax payers will not see the benefits smart cities are designed to deliver. Putting aside the commercial differences technology companies have, they can create a level playing field to sell products and services on an even kilter.

One of the ways of achieving this is by putting in place standards that are accepted across the board. Having this in place will result in the implementation of new technologies across different local authorities becoming increasingly easier. It will allow for data to be shared between departments or systems more easily, and enable the development of software and tools without the need for redevelopment. Public sector organisations will be able to bolt on new services as they develop rather than have to take a silo approach depending on which of the competing technologies they initially choose.

  1. If IoT deployments aren’t standardised, what impact will this have on the IoT ecosystem?

Without standardisation, the development of IoT and smart cities will be limited. There will be a finite point as to how smart these cities will ever be able to become. We will end up with a cluster of things that are connected, but not smart enough to share critical information and allow for automation to take place.

As smart cities touch upon so many verticals, standardisation becomes a necessity if there is going to be a continuous drive in the development of IoT applications. This standardisation will also have the virtuous circle effect of driving further adoption of IoT devices as organisations and industries are able to replicate schemes and implementation with less hassle.

By allowing the sharing of infrastructure and data across more than one application, standards reduce the need for stand-alone applications. This inevitably will lead to a reduction in the cost of deployment as the time it takes to bring applications online will be reduced. According to the Machina findings, 30 per cent of total cost could be cut if smart cities adopted standards in the next eight years.

  1. Why has this fragmentation occurred as IoT has evolved?

Standards are already in place at national and sector specific levels but the volume of different standards makes it difficult for verticals and industries to implement interoperable standards. As such, we’re left with many competing and non-competing standards that cover various areas. These are not international standards like GSM and it is important to understand this distinction. Only through a much bigger approach to standards will we achieve the interoperability and economies of scale benefits that are needed to make the IoT work.

This legacy is principally due to the ‘top-down’ approach adopted by vendors across different verticals, which encourages lower-level standards to fit into a pre-agreed framework. This particularly aids the issue of fragmentation with regards to ‘old’ standards which predate IoT implementations and do not have the flexibility to adapt to the evolution of verticals.

As the overarching framework cannot always anticipate how standards will develop over the course of time, organisations are essentially faced with the task of retrofitting square peg standards into round holes. This results in gaps of non-standardised areas in which lower-level standards do not fit into the wider framework begin to emerge.

  1. What needs to happen to develop and cement a cross-industry standards for IoT, smart cities or applications/vertical industries?

To stop fragmentation occurring across applications and verticals, a clear framework needs to be put in place to encompass all standards. At the moment, there are two types of approaches to standardisation. One is the top-down approach which puts a framework in place prior to the creation of lower-level standards. While this can be seen as a more organised approach, it rarely works and often results in over-lapping or gaps where low-level standards don’t quite fit the overall framework. Moreover, when it comes to smart cities, the top-down approach is too slow for the activity around smart cities.

Instead, industry bodies need to adopt the second kind of approach, a bottom-up method, whereby standards are developed based on necessity and are then integrated seamlessly into an overarching framework. One such approach is embodied in the true international standard oneM2MÔ which aims to enables to enable the integration of data across silos so critical for the manifestation of the IoT.

  1. oneMPOWER platform is driving InterDigital’s oneTRANSPORT initiative – could we see something similar for other industries?

Certainly, oneMPOWER is a platform that implements the oneM2M standard, and there’s nothing specific to transportation in the platform: it’s designed to underpin applications in any industry, and we’re already executing proofs of concept in areas like healthcare and manufacturing. In fact, the ability for a platform – ours or anyone else’s – to operate across verticals is one of the most exciting things about IoT.

We can anticipate that the first phases of IoT will seek to address issues or improve operations in specific vertical applications, but the real excitement will be when we begin to see applications that bridge industries. For instance, transportation applications that combine with supply chain that in turn combine with manufacturing, to yield cross-vertical areas of value.

That future is one of the reasons why standards implementation is so important: if industries deploy only solutions that are a fit for their current need, they might be closing the door to those future areas of value.

Image Credit: Chesky / Shutterstock