IoT is expected to be one of the biggest transformations in the tech industry in years, with billions of internet-connected devices set to be deployed in the next few years. Already, some estimates suggest there are more IoT 'things' in the world than people, and this could grow to as much as 20 billion by the end of the decade.
Regardless of what IoT devices are being tasked with, they all depend on strong connectivity in order to function properly. Without this, all the investments businesses have made into the technology will be for nothing.
However, ensuring this connectivity is no easy task. As McKinsey notes, enterprises can currently choose from more than 30 different connectivity options when it comes to supporting their IoT deployments, all of which offer differences in range, cost, bandwidth and reliability. At present, there is very little standardization in the market, so it can be hard to determine which solution will be best for which scenario.
This fragmentation poses a serious challenge for IT pros. As well as the task of making sure all their IoT devices can connect effectively and integrate with their network, they will have to deal with the uncertainty it poses. No-one wants to be left owning a Betamax player in a world of VHS, yet this may be exactly what enterprises today may face if they commit to a connectivity technology that falls by the wayside.
5G the future - but can businesses afford to wait?
Many experts predict that in the coming years, the IT connectivity quandary will be solved by 5G. IoT is often touted as the 'killer app' of the next-generation of cellular technology, as it will allow a huge number of devices to connect with low latency and high bandwidth.
But while some commercial rollouts are currently taking place, it will be at least five years before 5G technology is a practical and cost-effective solution for most businesses. And businesses cannot wait for this to hit the mainstream before taking advantage of IoT. McKinsey forecasts that the economic benefits related to these devices are expected to reach as much as $11.1 trillion a year by 2025, so companies cannot afford to defer their investments until 5G arrives.
The options available today
So what should businesses be considering today to ensure the connectivity solutions they choose are able to meet the demands of IoT? At the moment, there are four basic categories businesses can choose from: unlicensed; low power, wide area (LPWA); cellular; and extraterrestrial.
Unlicensed is typically the cheaper point of entry to the IoT and, as they are not licensed to any particular company, any enterprise can adopt them easily. Wi-Fi is perhaps the best-known option that falls into this category. However, they have limited range and may be subject to interference.
The key benefits of LPWA technologies, as the name suggests, are the low power requirements and long range. They are also highly reliable. At the moment, McKinsey notes that less than 20 percent of the global population is currently reached by this connectivity option, but this is growing rapidly and it is expected this will be the most common deployment option for IoT by 2022, when 5G will still not yet be widely available.
Cellular connectivity is where 5G will sit when it matures, and at present is commonly represented by 4G LTE networks. It offers comparatively high bandwidth and reliability, but does incur significant costs - often several times that of Wi-Fi and requires a lot of power.
Finally, there is extraterrestrial. This usually means satellite connectivity technology - though new alternatives such as drones are becoming more practical - and, as you might expect, has the highest cost of any option so is typically reserved for only the most demanding applications, or locations where no other service is feasible.
Choosing the right option
All these options have different pros and cons, so businesses will need to evaluate their IoT solutions carefully and identify their key priorities. For example, if they will be connecting machines on a small factory floor, Wi-Fi may still be adequate, but for scenarios such as connected cars, cellular solutions may be the only option.
Whichever solution ends up being the most appropriate, it's clear that in the age of IoT, closer attention than ever will have to be paid to connectivity, and the decisions businesses make now could have consequences for years to come, so it's vital they take the time to get it right.