I’ve received many a press release on the Internet of Things (IoT) in the past few years, and frankly, I’ve grown tired of the generic “think pieces” I’ve been expected to turn into readable content.

Those releases have tended to only provide a “helicopter overview” of the tech. And that’s not really useful when it comes to communicating how it actually applies, on a practical level, to South Africa. And I’m all about the practical.

So I reached out to the PR people who sent me the latest think piece with many, many pointed questions on IoT, with the preface that I want actual INFORMATION, please. And lo and behold, they put me in touch with a real-life electrical engineer who knows a huge amount about IoT, and who was only too pleased to enthusiastically share his broad knowledge with me.

Below, for your reading pleasure, a truly insightful (and exclusive!) Q&A with Internet Solutions’ Roger Hislop that goes a long way to providing genuine answers around IoT’s relevance and usefulness in a South African context.

Finally. This is the article to read if you’ve heard about IoT and its benefits, but need to know more of the actual nitty-gritty behind it.

The No-Bullshit IoT Q&A

Hypertext: Hi Roger, and thanks so much for your time. First question: is there a business in IoT people should be chasing?

Roger Hislop: The answer is “Holy smokes, yes!” I say this as a total IoT enthusiast, as well as an electrical engineer that’s also a major tech sceptic and someone with no interest in gadgets. At my house, I have a sensor hooked up to my garage doors that tells me if I’ve forgotten to close them at night. I have another on my roof telling me what current is being drawn by my geyser, because I’m really curious about whether the solar geyser does much. I plan to stick another current sensor on the pool pump with a remote switch, to see if the Kreepy has sucked up throat clogging seed pods in spring and the motor is labouring and needs saving. I also want a panic button and location tracker for my wife and daughter that is small and light, doesn’t need charging, and works anywhere.

Every day, a million South Africans walk into Builders Warehouse, or Matrix Computers, or click onto Evetech or Nivo. They walk out with tools, parts, connectors, bits and pieces. Us South Africans are a handy bunch – if we can build our own indoor braai, we can surely implement IoT technologies in the house. Or our businesses. Or plots. Or farms.

There’s incredible scope for smart people to take off-the-shelf IoT devices, hook them up through one of the IoT networks to a Web service to add some secret sauce, and integrate them into clever, desirable products.

Hypertext: What sort of network does IoT require? I.e. is an office/home Wi-Fi connection enough or do people also need to install some new fancy narrowband-network on their premises, or is someone else building one for public use?

Roger Hislop: This is where things get a little complicated. IoT is not a thing. You can’t buy ten IoTs at your corner shop. The term “Internet of Things” describes a capability, not a technology or a product. The “Internet of Things” describes how an electronic device with a wireless network connection can connect to the Cloud.

What if you can have a useful device that is battery powered, can talk over a ubiquitous public network from anywhere you are, and hook up to the Internet in a way that is secure but also easy to work with. How about that? That’s real IoT.

Battery powered is key – think of putting a “gate closed” sensor on your driveway gate, or a remote counter on your water meter so you can spot a gushing pipe-break from the office. Do you really want to run power and signal wires all the way from your house to the ditch under the bush on the far corner of your property? Alternatively, do you want to be changing batteries every month or two? Nope, and nope.

Hence – Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) Technology. Wireless data connections that use tiny, tiny amounts of power to send data very long distances even from grimy ditches at the bottom of the garden. The three key technologies here are Sigfox, LoRa and NB-IoT – all so-called narrow-band radio technologies. Long range, very low power consumption, very, very low data rates – but powered by a battery that lasts five or even ten years.

Sigfox – a proprietary system out of France, is deployed as a national macro network in each country by a single operator. In South Africa, that company is Sqwidnet. Sigfox sends very small uplink frames (maximum 12 byte payload) from devices to base stations over very long distances (over 20kms even in urban areas), although with limited downlink capability. Sigfox is brilliant for “anywhere, anytime” connectivity for simple devices deployed far out in the field. Am I on, am I off, what’s my temperature, where am I? That kind of thing.

LoRa is a technology from a US company called Semtech. It is  available as an open standard called LoRaWAN. In South Africa, LoRaWAN is being rolled out as a national macro network by Comsol, but there are other operators – some commercial for private business use, some are crowd-sourced enthusiast systems (there are many local base stations run as part of “The Things Network” founded in the Netherlands – have a look if there are base stations near you at thethingsnetwork.org). LoRaWAN supports larger payloads (theoretical maximum of 242 bytes) and greater downlink capability than Sigfox, but has less range – 5-10kms in urban areas, 20+km rural. Because LoRaWAN is less restricted in how it can be deployed, a company like Comsol can provide coverage for larger population centres with their public shared network, or can provide connectivity via private base station builds – or can even hook you up via micro or pico-cell gateways that cover just a house and immediate neighbourhood.

NB-IoT is the narrowband IoT standard from the mobile operator world. Vodacom has made a lot of noise here, with a test network covering large parts of Gauteng, but it’s not really commercially available. MTN is also planning on rolling out NB-IoT, but not any time soon. Most industry observers don’t expect genuine NB-IoT commercial availability much before 2020. NB-IoT has many of the advantages of Sigfox and LoRaWAN, and time will tell whether it will blitz the other standards thanks to the mobile operators’ leviathan size and scale. Personally, I think not … there is space for multiple technologies, each with their own strengths, weaknesses and cost points.

There are other LPWAN standards, but so far Sigfox and LoRa are the most widely deployed.

Hypertext: What are the costs?

Roger Hislop: Cost-wise, connectivity on these two options is dirt cheap. On the public networks, you’re looking at something like R50-R150 subscription per device per year. That’s right. Per year.

Why the price range? Depending on the network, your subscription will buy you a connectivity profile… 140 messages per day, 2 downlinks. 50 messages per day, no downlink. And so on. That’s varying from a message every ten minutes to every couple of hours.

So what about Wi-Fi? Truth be told, any network technology can be used for IoT applications. The Internet does not care what you use to carry your data. There are a lot of home security, home automation and commercial devices that use Wi-Fi. However, Wi-Fi is not a great option for many IoT applications. Wi-Fi is power-hungry, so batteries are less of an option. Wi-Fi is great for high-bandwidth applications like IP cameras for video. IoT is less suited to power monitors, water meters and similar.

Another down-side of Wi-Fi is that the end user needs to set it up – SSIDs and password for their Wi-Fi network. That’s easy with a smartphone, not so easy with a tiny embedded gate sensor. Also, if your power goes off, your Wi-Fi goes off.  And you probably don’t get signal down the bottom end of your garden where the pool pump is.

Narrowband IoT networks like Sigfox and LoRaWAN let you move the device almost anywhere there is coverage across the country (more base stations are rolled out every day), and you can configure,  authenticate and enable devices via the Internet.

Hypertext: How do people buy IoT connectivity?

Roger Hislop: Right now, options are pretty limited as a consumer – there is no online shop to buy connectivity from. As a small technology integrator, computer retail shop or tech services company, you can buy devices, and sign up with one of the network operators as a connectivity reseller, but it’s quite a process. Some of the larger ISPs are starting to offer pay-as-you-go and pay-by-credit-card connectivity options for smaller systems integrators.

Devices are also still difficult to buy – there are a number of online sites selling mostly Wi-Fi enabled security and automation products, but not much LoRaWAN or Sigfox (although you can buy overseas and import). There are a number of very good South African electronics manufacturers developing products, which are starting to come to market.

Hypertext: How soon before general IoT availability?

Roger Hislop: I’d estimate another six months (from August 2018 – ed) and you’ll start to see broad availability of devices, and easier connectivity purchase options.Anyone that is a bit technical, and a bit handy, can start to play with the technology now. The opportunity for smaller systems integrators is huge, because the use cases are legion, and the technology is pretty easy to work with. The IoT wave is still just an ominous swell out at sea – but when it breaks it will change everything. For the first time, anyone will be able to see at a glance what is happening in their physical environment from anywhere, and even control it remotely. They will be able to capture events and measurements, plot it, chart it and set up rules for what to do about it, monitored and managed by computers that never get bored, never sleep.

It’s really exciting in how it can change our lives for the better by giving us more control, more awareness. Instead of distracting us from the real world, like smartphone tech does, IoT tech connects us to the real world. Except unlike smartphone tech, IoT systems can be dreamed up, built and turned into something cool by anyone with a little brain power and a screwdriver. 

Hypertext: Thanks so much for your incredibly detailed answers, Roger! We wish you all the best in your latest venture!

Roger Hislop: You’re more than welcome, and thank you for the opportunity!

Roger Hislop is an engineer at Internet Solutions, currently setting up a new business unit offering IoT connectivity, network interconnect and data interfacing systems to allow systems integrators and software developers to jump on the IoT wagon.

[GIF credit: Giphy.com]

The moral of the story here: when you want something done, talk to an engineer.

Deon got his first taste of PC gaming at the tender age of 11 when his father bought an 8088 XT, ostensibly to "help him with his homework". Instead, it introduced him to Leisure Suit Larry, King Graham, Sonny Bonds and many more, and Deon has been a PC gamer and hardware enthusiast ever since. He landed his first professional writing gig in 2006 at a prestigious local PC magazine, a very happy happenstance as he got to write for a living about things he loves - tech, PCs, gaming, and everything in between. He's been writing about it all ever since, and loves every minute of it.