Bandwidth-sipping IoT steers clear of net neutrality debate -- for now

For now, the Internet of Things doesn't use enough network capacity to stir up arguments

If you're worried about an Internet "fast lane" squeezing out all the futuristic connected devices you're hoping to use around your home, fear not.

The vaunted Internet of Things, which already includes a variety of industrial sensors and machines and a growing number of consumer devices, is likely to make itself more at home in the coming years. Some such devices, like the connected refrigerator, are still more curiosity than useful tool. But others are playing important roles in health care and home security, taking advantage of always-on broadband connections to keep people and machines elsewhere informed in real time.

U.S. net neutrality advocates' main concern is that Internet service providers will sell priority delivery on their networks to the highest bidder, then squeeze out all the traffic from the users that don't pay. Whether that can or will happen is a matter of fierce debate. But whatever websites or services might get left behind in a paid-priority world, the Internet of Things demands so little bandwidth that it should get away without a scratch, according to people on both sides of the debate.

The question of IoT and net neutrality is likely to revolve mostly around connected devices that use home broadband connections. For IoT gear on power grids or industrial sites, enterprises can already buy special plans with guaranteed quality of service. In addition, cellular networks have different capacity issues from cable and DSL (digital subscriber line) and have been treated differently in terms of net neutrality. The FCC expects them to stay separate, though it's asked whether the two should be lumped together.

IoT hasn't escaped the debate entirely. On an early conference call to discuss its new proposal to ensure a so-called open Internet, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission cited connected heart monitors as one technology that anyone might agree deserves priority. Broadband for America, a group generally opposed to any new net neutrality rules, also told a press briefing on Friday that health-care needs might justify prioritization.

"When one thinks of it in terms of real-time monitoring of pacemakers ... if you think about network management and prioritization, I think there would be support," said Harold Ford, Broadband for America's co-chairman.

However, people involved in the IoT device and services business said they don't see a need for priority traffic handling now, and it hasn't been a hot topic in the industry.

Most uses of IoT are built around small, power-efficient devices, often powered by batteries and using a relatively slow wireless connection such as Bluetooth or ZigBee. They exchange small bits of information such as the current temperature, the operating condition of a machine, or whether an elderly person has moved from room to room in the past few hours.

As game-changing as those applications may be, the bits they generate won't add up to enough traffic to butt heads with the likes of Netflix streams and peer-to-peer file sharing -- at least not yet.

"The amount of traffic from Internet of Things compared to the amount of traffic that's created by you and me just surfing the Web ... is like less than 1 percent," said analyst Steve Hilton of IoT consultancy Machnation.

Even if consumers' broadband speeds were affected by a paid-priority scheme, it probably wouldn't get bad enough to hurt IoT, said Tom Lee, co-founder of IoT cloud provider Ayla Networks. "If it's good enough to satisfy most Netflix consumers, it almost automatically satisfies the needs of the IoT things," Lee said.

Some home IoT applications do have some basic performance requirements. For example, when keeping track of a patient's health from home or detecting a break-in, users might want to make sure there are no delays. The predecessor of such emergency services, the 911 phone call, already gets priority on carriers' networks. IoT is opening up a new world of alerts that go beyond 911, but for now at least, the new types of services aren't demanding special treatment.

IoT devices and software have built-in mechanisms for making sure they get messages out. Those include protocols for falling back to another carrier or another form of communication, such as SMS (short message service) if the usual method fails, said Daniel Collins, chief technology officer of Jasper Technologies. Jasper is a SaaS (software-as-a-service) provider for IoT infrastructure.

"What I haven't seen yet is where companies are saying, 'Because my application is some kind of a life-or-death application, that therefore my traffic should get some priority treatment over other traffic," Collins said.

But if providers of connected-health services are allowed to pay for priority, they probably will, Hilton said. And though there may be objections to it, prioritizing those narrow streams of traffic probably wouldn't affect anything else consumers are trying to do, he said.

Paid prioritization could help IoT, like other services on the network, achieve the right performance if they had special requirements, said Doug Brake, a telecommunications policy analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. But he doesn't expect regulators to carve out exceptions for certain services deemed more deserving. Whether a Fitbit or a life-saving alert bracelet, IoT would probably have the same right to paid priority as an online game, Brake said.

AT&T, which on its wireless network lets content providers cover the cost of delivering their data to consumers' phones, indicated that it's committed to keeping the Internet open to all types of services.

"AT&T has built its broadband business, both wired and wireless, on the principle of Internet openness. That is what our customers rightly expect, and it is what our company will continue to deliver," the company said in a written statement.

An opponent of paid priority said it isn't needed because there's enough bandwidth for all services now. Instead, ISPs have floated the idea, and fear of congestion, for their own benefit and profit, said Derek Turner, research director at the consumer advocacy group Free Press.

"The first thing you're going to see prioritized is the ISP's own affiliated content," such as video and voice calls, Turner said. Then the ISPs will sell priority to a few other companies with deep pockets, he said.

"If you break down the basic economic and engineering reality of this, this isn't about grandma's heart monitor," Turner said. "This is about the big ISPs who face very little competition tapping into an additional revenue stream."

Naturally, the picture could change if IoT in areas such as remote medical care grows more complex and demanding, said Ayla's Lee, a former researcher at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

"The future tends to happen a lot faster than we expect," Lee said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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