A workshop on radio-frequency identification (RFID) hosted by the ITU in Geneva in February, brought the spotlight on the emergence of a so-called ‘Internet of things’, enabling ubiquitous network connectivity, anytime and anywhere.
With the use of key technologies such as radio tags and wireless sensor networks, realtime communications and the free exchange of information between users and the intelligent objects around them, firmly leave the domain of science fiction.
Early evidence of the growing ubiquity of networks can be found in the widespread use of mobile phones: The number of mobile phones worldwide surpassed 2 billion in mid-2005 and is now taken for granted by most users in their daily life. The Internet, too, has grown at a phenomenal pace. From its origins as an academic network for a small élite, the worldwide network now boasts almost a billion users. And this is only the beginning.
"We are on the cutting edge of a new communications era that will radically transform the Internet as we know it, and with it, our corporate, community, and personal spheres," says Lara Srivastava, lead author of 'The Internet of things', a report recently released by ITU. "As an unparalleled tool for communication between people, the Internet is now set to enable connectivity between people and all kinds of objects, as well as between objects and other things," she says.
Innovations like RFID tags herald the dawn of a high-tech future in which 'users' of networks will be counted in the billions and where humans may become the minority as generators and receivers of this traffic. Instead, most of the traffic will flow between inanimate objects, thereby creating a much wider and more complex 'Internet of things'.
By embedding short-range mobile transceivers into gadgets and everyday items, the Internet of things stimulates entirely new forms of communication.
Not surprisingly, the 'Internet of things' creates exciting opportunities for a wide array of players - from mobile operators to retailers, from equipment manufacturers to car manufacturers. For everyday users, the connection of individual things to a network will mean that the real world will become increasingly easier to manage by virtual design. It means greater convenience, whether it is keeping kitchen inventories, shopping, or cooking. It also means enhanced quality of life with better lifestyle applications and healthcare. Access to information and knowledge may also foster improved farming practices and streamlined business and manufacturing processes through the ability to track components and products.
In developing economies, RFID and related technologies could play a major role in reducing poverty and overcoming the digital divide. In general, the Internet of things could well become a catalyst for sustained economic growth and technological development.
For the telecommunications industry, the expansion of the Internet is not only an opportunity to capitalise on existing success stories, such as broadband, mobile and wireless communications, but it also provides the possibility to explore new frontiers. In the longer term, the Internet of things will create market opportunities outside the traditional purview of the telecommunication sector.
But will the next technological revolution make the world a better place? And what does it all mean in a concrete sense for citizens of the future? What will encourage them to embrace or reject these developments? In a world increasingly mediated by technology, the human core to our activities can remain untouched through people-oriented strategies that exhibit tighter linkages between those that create the technology and those that use it. But such ubiquitous technologies also raise issues such as privacy and protection of personal information, and authentication.
The new ITU report (www.itu.int/pub/S-POL-IR.IT-2005/e) looks at four key enabling technologies for the Internet of things - RFID, sensors, smart technologies (such as those enabling smart homes and intelligent vehicles) and nanotechnology.