Wi-Fi covers our houses; fast cellular networks allow us to stay connected everywhere else. Bluetooth Low Energy is poised to bring an unprecedented degree of location awareness to our devices. Yet no single technology will be enough to power the entire Internet of Things.
The smart devices of tomorrow will need to be wireless multilingual, able to communicate not only with many different networks, but also with many kinds networks. They will need to be selective in their connectivity, using different technologies for different tasks to balance performance and battery life. In other words, they’ll have to be as smart as this dog activity tracker.
The whistle, released last fall, is a small metal disc the size of a silver dollar that attaches to your dog’s collar. It communicates with a smartphone app so you can track your puppy’s physical condition over time and check their activity throughout the day (and make sure the dog walker isn’t just watching HBO GO on your couch when he’s supposed to go out with your furry friend.) The newest version of the device, slated for release in summer 2015, is the WhistleGPS, which adds location tracking to the mix. What’s new is how it will do this tracking – leveraging an all-new, low-power ultra-narrowband wireless network that will cover U.S. cities from the end of the year.
Location tracking is something Steve Eidelman and Ben Jacobs, the former Bain consultants who founded Whistle, wanted to include from the get-go. The advantage is obvious; dogs get lost, people panic. The problem, however, was power. Battery-hungry cellular technologies found in existing trackers make bulky devices inevitable. âThey’re four times the size of the current Whistle label because they’re on Verizon,â says Jacobs. “This is why Whistle was not launched with GPS.”
It is useful to think of the spectrum as a spectrum. On the one hand, there are cellular networks, which are great with high data rates but extremely power hungry. On the other hand, there are technologies like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth: low cost, low power consumption, and physically small, but limited to very short distances. âIn the middle is this huge gap,â Jacobs says.
A whole new kind of wireless network
SigFox is one of the players who hope to fill this void. For several years, the French company has been quietly building a cellular network dedicated exclusively to connected objects and the Internet of Things. It’s based on a sub-gigahertz wireless band – the type of technology that powered your cordless phone around 2002 – with base stations currently deployed in the UK, France, Spain and elsewhere in Europe. Construction of a San Francisco grid is expected to start this summer. Other US cities will follow later this year.
Whistle, one of the first consumer products to use the SigFox infrastructure, will be wise in its use of the network. When the dog leaves a predetermined area around their home, Whistle sends a signal to SigFox base stations, each with a range of one to three miles, to triangulate the device’s longitude and latitude. When your puppy is safe at home, Whistle will switch back to faster networks, like Wi-Fi, to transmit data.
Connectivity will add a subscription fee of $ 5 per month to the price of WhistleGPS when it arrives next year (you can pre-order one this week for $ 49; after it’s $ 129). But the new wireless solution will keep the device itself small and light – the same size, in fact, as the original tracking-less version. It’s a big deal, especially for small dogs. According to Jacobs, WhistleGPS is the smallest pet tracking device on the market, while providing approximately twice the battery life of tracker-bulky competitors.
The greatest opportunity
SigFox’s sub-GHz network is apparently a perfect solution for Whistle’s localization ambitions. But it’s not hard to see greater potential for these emerging sub-gig networks. There are opportunities in asset tracking, for example, where existing logistics systems still rely on aging and soon to be extinct 2G. You could use this type of wireless in security systems, for homeowners who didn’t want to rely entirely on Wi-Fi for fire and theft prevention. Generally speaking, these sub-gig networks – much slower than current 4G cellular networks, but also requiring much less power – could be useful for anything. sometimes must register on the Internet.
Whether or not you feel like you have to follow your puppy with military efficiency, WhistleGPS is a harbinger of devices to come. It’s a reminder that in terms of connectivity, there is no silver bullet for the Internet of Things. Emerging networks like SigFox will fill in some crucial gaps, but as designers and engineers plan for tomorrow, building a chaotic, noise-free world in which everything is constantly chatting with everything else, they would do well to consider the whole spectrum of possibilities.