The Underestimated IoT Retrofit

July 19, 2022 - Frank Healy

As IoT business cases improve, service providers will need to decide what to prioritize

What do a garbage bin and a Google Pixel watch have in common? As it turns out, a bit more than expected (no offence Google!).

During the pandemic, the retrofitting in several localities became very noticeable. Normally sleepy city councils have, almost overnight, replaced their old stock of garbage bins with connected ones and retrofitted street lighting with more advanced and controllable LED versions. It seems the efficiency of running costs have made purchasing decisions increasingly easy – or perhaps even essential – for otherwise slow-moving public-sector procurement departments.

Such “street furniture”, if it is connected, will more likely use 4G at this time, similar to the recently announced Google Pixel watch. Diverse devices and modules are launching faster than ever before with 5G integration, despite chipset shortages. Additionally, 5G will also require less power than 4G, further improving the business cases for such device installations.

5G devices themselves are also more likely to be eSIM or iSIM enabled – meaning less meddling by installers. They will simply work out-of-the-box once activated, and there will likely be some rapid scaling. Analyst consensus is that there will be over one billion 5G connections by the end of 2022. Without a doubt, many of those will be more migratory connections relating to smartphones and laptops, but analyst CCS Insight predicts that combined 5G machine-to-machine (M2M) and cellular Internet of things (IoT) applications will hit 455 million connections by 2026.

Consumers may be unaware of many of the large scale or industrial M2M and IoT applications that are evolving. One example is Vodafone’s “connected forests” project where IOT devices are used to monitor climate quality and protect against deforestation. Of course, where 5G is not directly available, compatible tech such as NB-IoT and satellite will have roles to play particularly in agricultural contexts. Remote IoT devices and even networks themselves are becoming ever more sustainable by scrounging power from light, heat and vibrations from within the direct vicinity. In theory, this will bolster the business cases further and keep carbon impacts to a minimum.

If trees are not the ultimate example of a retrofit, then perhaps a further example is the market for connecting existing valuable assets such as trains and trucks. The largest railroad in the United States, Union Pacific, has introduced IoT as an asset for monitoring the reliability and condition of its equipment. The company’s IoT-based system predicts equipment failures and reduces derailment risks through an array of acoustic and visual sensors on tracks. These monitor the integrity of train wheels by sending more than 20 million temperature readings per day to the Union Pacific data center. Every incident avoided, which averages 3 a day, can save $40m per incident.

This is not to say that brand new devices such as vehicles, robots and of course drones are not to come, but a lot of future connectivity will be more migratory and related to the huge diversity of things that already exist. Perhaps the ultimate retrofit is in fact people themselves. Trackers and smartwatches are now owned by over a quarter of North Americans and shipments in Western Europe more than tripled from 2015 to 2021. Putting the data concerns aside, even smarter smartwatches can now monitor thousands of physiological and behavioral variables that help better the lives of millions, and this is just the beginning.

All of this has implications for service providers – continued opportunities for diversification will need to be considered. What should be the focus in various value chains? Do they have the organizational flexibility, support, systems (5G and other), partners and especially monetization capabilities for such a rapidly evolving landscape? For some the answers are easier than for others. For others, their own retrofit may need to be considered.


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