SMS Provides Reliable Two-way Communication for IoT

SMS was doing machine to machine (M2M) communication long before anyone had uttered the words “internet of things.” Piggybacking on the signaling system used by GSM networks, SMS was a left-field innovation that let people in on a previously machine-only communication method.

Despite newer protocols promising greater bandwidth, lower power requirements or greater network flexibility, SMS chugs reliably along at the heart of many IoT applications.

Let’s explore the role of SMS in IoT today.

Data Transfer in IoT

According to Accenture, industrial uses of IoT could add $14.2 trillion to the global economy by 2030. That doesn’t even include the money that’ll be spent on consumer IoT gadgets, such as smart thermostats and the much-joked-about internet-connected toasters.

Like the world wide web before it, the internet of things is moving from niche to mainstream and becoming less of a cohesive whole as it does. Instead, it’s splintering into specializations. For example, an optical device that counts the number of widgets on a production line operates in a very different realm than an autonomous, seafaring cargo ship does.

As you’d expect, the technologies that enable IoT applications vary just as much. Perhaps counterintuitively, not all of them connect devices directly to the internet. Instead, particularly in industrial contexts, the enabling technologies focus on efficient communication of data, which can then be used in private contexts or across the wider internet.

Choosing the right channel for transporting the data comes down to four factors:

  • distance between devices
  • availability of power
  • volume of data transfer
  • security requirements

Industrial use cases offer huge opportunities for IoT to make quantum leaps in efficiency by intelligently choosing the most effective data-transfer channel for the given scenario. Take the pest-control company in Copenhagen whose traps send SMS status updates back to the control center. Or the international rollout of smart meters.

SMS in IoT Use Case: Smart Metering

From its invention in 1888 until the past 10 years, the utility meter had barely changed. Now, the global rollout of smart meters represents one of the largest deployments of IoT technology to date.

In 2016, the number of smart meters globally rose to 700 million; half of those in China alone. One research company predicts that by 2025 53% of meters around the world will be smart meters.

Utility meters may seem like a mundane technology at first glance, but the conversion to smart metering pushes current IoT communications technology to its limits. While many large IoT projects exist within a single company or group, the smart meter rollout will involve billions of individual customers and thousands of suppliers. You can see how complex this becomes just by looking at the UK’s smart meter rollout. Sixty energy retailers supply 29 million domestic properties via 14 electricity distributors and eight gas distribution networks.

In effect, this is a national communications project that just happens to have an IoT component. So, how do you enable reliable two-way communication for 50 million smart meters?

In the southern part of the UK, Telefonica is using their O2 cellular network to send data to and from meters. Where there’s strong cellular service, meters connect to the central network using 3G or GPRS data. However, some parts of the UK don’t get a data signal on the O2 network. Here, they turn to good old SMS. As O2 is a GSM network, so long as the meters can establish a connection then they can send and receive SMS.

And that’s the key to why SMS is crucial to the success of M2M communications in IoT networks: it’s available anywhere there’s a phone signal, it’s cheap and, with encryption, it’s secure.

SMS and IoT as Mobile App Alternative?

With 2.2 million apps in the Apple App Store and 2.7 million in the Google Play Store, mobile phone users may be hitting app fatigue. As IoT makes its way into homes, offices and vehicles, will they really want yet another app for every new device or vendor? And let’s not forget that each new IoT app is also a potential security threat.

Here again, SMS offers a straightforward and ubiquitous alternative. Staying with the energy theme, consider smart thermostats. While Nest gets the headlines, Hive is an alternative that provides both an app and an SMS interface. Want to heat your house with a text? Send the command HEAT ON 68 to set the thermostat to 68 degrees F.

SMS: Old Reliable for New Tech

The near-universal availability of SMS makes it ideally suited to new applications, such as IoT communication. Using a cloud communications platform, businesses with industrial use cases can embed SMS in their IoT deployments. In fact, SMS can provide a near-seamless channel between back-end application servers and remote devices in the field. In consumer applications, SMS can become just another interface between users and their IoT devices.

Even as new communication methods come and go, there’s a good chance SMS will still be reliably delivering short bursts of data from one point to another.

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