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

Stephen Lawson | May 20, 2014
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.


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