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 IoT communication.
Let's explore how SMS enables the two-way communication underlying many popular IoT technologies today.
Data Transfer in IoT
According to Gartner, revenue from endpoint electronics will total $389 billion globally by 2020. Connected cars will represent a significant portion of that revenue, with printers and photocopiers also contributing a considerable amount of spending. Smart home security systems and government IoT solutions for public safety are also expected to experience an uptick in adoption in the near future.
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 where industrial internet of things (IIoT) devices are becoming more commonplace, the enabling technologies focus on efficient IoT communication of data. This data 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 Swedish pest-control company described in Network World, whose traps send SMS status updates back to the control center, or the international rollout of smart meters, as examples.
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.
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. Navigant Research predicted that 53% of meters around the world will be smart meters by 2025.
Utility meters may seem like a mundane technology at first glance, but the conversion to smart metering pushes current IoT communication 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. Multiple energy retailers supply all domestic properties via distinct electricity and gas distributors.
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 its 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. Some parts of the UK, however, don't get a data signal on the O2 network. Here, they turn to good old SMS. Because O2 is a GSM network, meters can send and receive SMS as long as they can establish a connection.
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. As TechTarget pointed out, SMS is already being used as a "shoulder tap" to wake an IoT device and then put it into a transmission mode. IoT device manufacturers can even design their connected gadgets to receive configuration updates via mobile terminated messages if they wish.
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. If the password used to access an IoT device via an app is easy to guess or crack, for example, malicious actors can quickly compromise the device and use it for an attack.
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 an IoT phone number to set the thermostat to 68 degrees F. Nearly any connected device can be equipped with IoT communication capability that enables this kind of remote control via SMS.
SMS: Old Reliability 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.