CES 2015: What’s the Internet of Things without the Internet?

Originally published at Breaking Modern:

No technology is 100 percent reliable, but many come close: Landline telephones, electricity, automobiles. Newer technological infrastructures, though essential to many people’s lives, tend to be somewhat less reliable. Cellular telephones drop calls and emails mysteriously disappear.

Internet of Things

Now, we are being told, the long-awaited Internet of Things is ready for primetime. This year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2015) in Las Vegas is all about the IoT.

“The Internet of Things is ‘ready to go,’ Samsung Electronics CEO BK Yoon said in his keynote address to CES 2015. ‘It’s not science fiction anymore — it is science fact … I would argue that the age of the Internet of Things has already started.’ “

Yoon predicts that 90 percent of Samsung products will be IoT devices by 2017.

Personally, I’m looking forward to a lot of these devices. The app that locks and unlocks the door to your home while monitoring who shows up while you’re gone. That same app allows you to email a temporary “key” to house guests for a limited period of time and that seems wicked cool. The lock itself is expensive, but we all know the high price tag will come down. Smart thermostats that adjust the temperature in each room of your home based on your presence maximize your comfort while minimizing your power bill — that’s really cool, too. If I were in organized crime, I’d get the smartwatch app that lets you unlock your car doors and start the engine remotely. It’s hard to get blown up in your car if you aren’t in it! Robert DeNiro in Casino or Julia’s Roberts’ professor in The Pelican Brief  could have avoided a wee spot of trouble for themselves had they had this app.

What’s the Internet of Things Without the Internet?

But there’s a catch: All of this stuff depends on sturdy access to the Internet.

Internet of Things

The car-start app unveiled by Hyundai at CES promises to guide you right to your car if you lose it in some massive parking lot — but what if you don’t have a signal? Using your phone to unlock your front door is a nifty trick, but what if your Wi-Fi is down or the signal from your router just doesn’t reach there?

What if your phone runs out of juice? My iPhone 5S rarely makes it through one day.

The assumption here is that the Internet, whether through cellular 3G, LTE, 4G networks or via Wi-Fi, is everywhere. But it’s not.

About 15 percent of Americans currently have no access to broadband Internet. And three percent still use dial-up! Even for those of us who are supposedly on the fast lane of the information superhighway (as they used to call it), Internet access is hardly ubiquitous.

I have to drive at least three-quarters of a mile from my home to get the two-bar minimum necessary to place a cell phone call. This isn’t just a problem in rural areas — there are a lot of cell phone dead zones in New York City and Los Angeles.

My house is wired, but it’s large enough to require a system of signal extenders — and even that doesn’t bring the Internet everywhere I would like it, such as the front door of the house. So much for that cool door lock.

I suspect that many Americans share my concurrent interest in the Internet of Things and also share my skepticism that it’s completely ready for primetime.

I’m constantly reminded of the fragility of Internet connections. Though the cables are buried underground, the signal is disrupted every few months by rainy weather. After a particularly bad tropical storm a few years ago, it took six weeks to get back online. Even when it works, it’s less than 100 percent. Streaming services like HBOGo and Netflix are impressive as far as it goes, but it often doesn’t go at all — so I don’t give up my old DVD player or cable TV subscription.

I’m not imagining this. Even the big players have trouble with streaming: Apple’s debut of the new iPhone 6 and Apple Watch last September was plagued by reports that people couldn’t watch it remotely.

Also, 81 percent of Americans have security concerns about IoT technology. And who can blame them? It wouldn’t be too much fun to have some Russian hacker start your car and drive it to a chop shop before you even get up in the morning. But I suspect that concerns over connectivity will trump those over security in the short run.

That said, I have little doubt that wireless Internet infrastructure will expand beyond 3G/LTE/4G, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to accommodate the demand for IoT gadgetry that will radically transform our everyday lives. At 51, I’m old enough to remember landline telephone calls that didn’t always go through and electricity that seemed to go out at the first sign of a thunderstorm. Those problems were basically resolved to the point that we have forgotten that they ever existed in the first place. Sooner rather than later — but perhaps not as soon as we are being told right now — the current issues with Internet access will have to be fixed.

Until then the Internet of Things, for me, remains part sci-fi, part reality.

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