Verizon lights a fire under IoT

The carrier's ThingSpace platform is designed to get connected devices out in the world quicker

20151028 verizon logo gift bags

The new Verizon logo appeared on gift bags at the mobile carrier's Innovation Center in San Francisco on Oct. 28, 2015.

Credit: Stephen Lawson

The Internet of Things is supposed to reach billions of connected devices in a few years, but that won't happen unless developers and vendors can mount some steep hurdles. On Wednesday, Verizon took steps to clear those away. 

At an event in San Francisco, the huge U.S. carrier launched ThingSpace, a platform for application development, device management and other tasks required to make IoT offerings a reality. It also laid out plans for a new network core just to handle those connected objects and announced less expensive chips for linking them to an LTE network.

Verizon plans to offer all the pieces needed to get connected devices out in the world serving consumers and enterprises. Today, IoT creators have to go to as many as six different companies for things like choosing chip modules, writing software, testing new devices and collecting and analyzing data, said Mike Lanman, Verizon's senior vice president of enterprise and IoT products.

"It's no wonder that so many people with great ideas for IoT don't make it through the barriers and gates to get in it," Lanman said.

The carrier is already helping some enterprises use IoT to better run their businesses. One is Hahn Family Wines, a family-owned winery in Northern California. Hahn uses sensors in its vineyards to detect when the plants need water and fungicides so it can apply those in a targeted way, saving resources, said Paul Clifton, Hahn's director of winemaking. 

ThingSpace is designed to be a single environment for developing and testing IoT products and the applications associated with them. It includes APIs (application programming interfaces) that developers can browse and utilize as they see fit, with Verizon getting a share of the revenue they help to bring in. ThingSpace also includes mechanisms for enterprises to manage devices after they've deployed them.

Verizon can also crunch the numbers that come in from those devices, using a data analytics engine that already deals with 1.5 trillion transactions per month, Lanman said.

ThingSpace isn't a proprietary Verizon platform, and customers can take advantage of its development and data smarts even for devices that don't connect to Verizon's cellular network, the company says. There are numerous alternatives to cellular for IoT devices, including local networks like Wi-Fi and ZigBee and specialized LPWANs (low-power wide-area networks). Cost and power consumption often influence the choice of a network.

To help attract devices to cellular, Verizon announced on Wednesday that silicon vendor Sequans has developed an LTE module for IoT devices at half the cost of previous ones. The cost will be halved again next year, Lanman said.

The carrier is also building a new network core designed specifically for IoT back-end processing. It's more streamlined because it doesn't need to carry out all the tasks required by advanced devices like smartphones, said Mark Bartolomeo, vice president of IoT and connected solutions. Without that lean, dedicated core, Verizon's infrastructure wouldn't be able to accommodate billions of devices. Between Verizon and AT&T, there are about 60 million connected devices in the U.S. today.

As one of two dominant wireless operators in the U.S., Verizon has an interest in helping IoT grow. But it's not offering help with software and services just to get startups to connect their devices to the Verizon cellular network. Software and services are more lucrative than connectivity in the long term, said independent mobile analyst Chetan Sharma.

A fragmented IoT industry makes development a headache, and broad-based solutions like Verizon's will help to get IoT deployments off the ground, Sharma said. The market will coalesce around players like Verizon, Google, and possibly large IoT specialists like PTC. "These things require scale," he said.

Big players like Verizon could help to spark IoT development across industries, too, said independent IoT analyst James Brehm. For example, if both a winery and the utility that supplies its water built their systems with ThingSpace, coordinating them for more efficiency would be quicker and easier, he said.

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