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“The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” Mark Weiser

  ITU’s report on “The Internet of Things” looks at how ubiquitous technologies promise a world of interconnected devices. Technological and market aspects are examined, as well as opportunities for developing countries. A statistical annex covering over 200 economies is included.The report was produced by ITU’s Strategy and Policy Unit

The Internet of Things

Tomorrow’s world is on the way

The daily lives of many people have been revolutionized by the Internet, which connects us together, irrespective of distance and time zone. Now, according to a new report from ITU, we are on the brink of a further revolution as, over the next two decades, the fast growing numbers of people surfing the web are likely to be overtaken by a huge army of inanimate objects that communicate with each other online. For example, refrigerators will be able to exchange information with supermarket shelves, laundry machines with clothing — or the clothes that you are wearing to “talk” to whatever you are walking past. This connecting of the physical world with the Internet’s virtual world has been called the “Internet of Things.”

The revolution we can expect is outlined in ITU’s publication “The Internet of Things,” the seventh in the series of ITU Internet Reports, which has been specially prepared in time for the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in November 2005. The report explains how a mobile phone, for example, can be fitted with a unique identifying device that transmits data about who and where you are, at the same time as it allows you to receive specific information about your locality. And already, electronic tags, equipped with radio transmitters, are being put onto manufactured goods that mean each item can be tracked online anywhere, at any time. Some of these tags are as tiny as a grain of sand; truly, they could be applied to almost anything.

The infrastructure needed to support the Internet of Things is fast being developed (Figure 1). Worldwide, more than 2 billion mobile phones were in circulation in mid-2005. With mobile Internet services and the deployment of higher-speed, next-generation mobile networks, such as 3G (IMT-2000), users can connect from almost any location. They can also access networks at any time, through always-on connectivity. Also, ways are being explored to expand the coding system used to define Internet addresses. At present, a 32-bit code yields about 4 billion addresses. A code using 128 bits (such as the “Ucode” being developed by Japan’s Ubiquitous ID Center) would give us enough addresses for a trillion tags to be assigned to individual objects every day — for a trillion years.

Our future environment is expected to be filled with invisible networks of tiny processors, all communicating with each other, unnoticed by us (Figure 2). The late Mark Weiser, former chief scientist at the XEROX Palo Alto Research Center, California (United States), described this future in 1991 when he coined the term “ubiquitous computing.” In his words: “The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.”

Figure 1 — Access to the Internet widens
Internet users and subscribers in the period 1995–2004 (left chart). Top 10 countries by number of 3G subscribers in 2004 (right chart)

Technologies take the lead

The Internet will be expanded to real objects through the application of key technologies such as radio-frequency identification (RFID), wireless sensing, and nanotechnology.

Although the Internet of Things is a relatively new vision, its enabling technologies have been around for some time. RFID was invented in the middle of the 20th century and materials using nanotechnology have been on the market for over a decade. Combining technologies like these gives rise to the “smart” items that we hear more and more about, such as robots, “smart cars” and “intelligent buildings.” Also, advances in miniaturization mean that smaller and smaller things will have the ability to connect and interact with the network, and with each other. The ITU report examines recent advances in nanotechnology that will embody greater processing capabilities in increasingly tiny packages.

RFID offers the location-specific item identification that is essential for thing-to-thing communications. It is the most mature of the enabling technologies, with established standardization protocols and commercial applications already reaching a market that is growing fast. Revenues from RFID are estimated to have reached between USD 1.5 and 1.8 billion in 2004. Nanotechnology is somewhat less mature, although excitement is building about its prospects. The National Science Foundation (NSF) in the United States estimates that worldwide annual production for nanotechnology sectors will reach USD 1 trillion by 2015, with electronics and semiconductors showing promising signs of growth.

Figure 2 — The Internet of Things
Introducing a new dimension into the communications environment

Sensor technologies bridge the gap between the physical and virtual worlds, enabling objects to respond to changes in their environment. Wireless sensor networks are already widely used in many situations, such as security gates, environmental monitoring, and home automation. They will become even more widespread as the cost of making sensors tumbles. Meanwhile, robotics is expanding beyond its base in the factory, and the market for domestic robots is expected to be the scene of major growth in future.

The impact of such technologies — alone and in combination— cannot be underestimated. It will challenge existing structures within the telecommunication industry, while forming the basis for entirely new opportunities and business models.


Radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology reads data on each package and its journey. This makes stock control much more efficient


Potential new markets

Between 1990 and 2003, the world telecommunication market almost tripled in value from USD 374 billion to USD 1124 billion, a growth rate of 8.8 per cent (Figure 3). Developing country markets have been growing at almost twice the rate of industrialized ones, and by 2003, the developing world accounted for one fifth of global telecommunication revenues. But the most remarkable increase has taken place in mobile communications, which rose from just 2 per cent of the market, by value, in 1990 to 43 per cent in 2003. It seems likely that in 2005, for the first time ever, revenues from mobile services will be greater than those from fixed-line operations.

Broadband access has changed the nature of the Internet, which is already cannibalizing revenue streams for telephone calls on fixed lines. The arrival of the Internet of Things will boost this trend even more. Global revenues for data are growing at a much faster rate than for voice, and this is likely to continue as millions of objects communicate with each other. So the Internet of Things could provide an important new market in telecommunications, as communicating devices are embedded throughout our environment.

Opportunities for the developing world

Developing countries are also innovating and adapting these new technologies, which have much to offer in helping to achieve development goals. Applications based on the Internet of Things can bring practical improvements in medical diagnosis and treatment, for example, as well as cleaner water, improved sanitation, energy production, increased trade, and better food safety.

One example can be seen in the production and export of commodities, where sensor technologies are being used to test the quality and purity of items such as coffee, in Brazil and Chile, and beef in Namibia. RFID has been used to track shipments of beef to the European Union to verify the origin and handling of each carcass. This not only ensures quality at a time when trading standards are becoming tougher; it also helps producers in developing countries to expand their exports.

Nanofilters are in use in Bangladesh to filter water so that it is safe to drink. Nanosensors could be used to monitor water quality at reduced cost, while nanomembranes could assist in the treatment of waste water. Elsewhere, emerging technologies could improve the quality and medical treatment in the developing world, through using the Internet of Things to monitor the origin of safe drugs and eliminating counterfeits.

Figure 3 — Fast-growing telecommunications
Trends in telecommunication service revenues between 1990 and 2003 (USD billion), broken down by developed and developing countries and by fixed-line/mobile services


Sensor technologies have much to offer regions that are vulnerable to natural disasters, where extensive and effective warning systems are needed to prevent loss of life and property. Robots have been used to detect and remove land mines to save lives and limbs in conflict zones.

In India and China, national initiatives to support research and the creation of software mean that advances in these technologies may well originate in those developing giants. The huge research programmes currently being undertaken mean that the Internet of Things in those countries will be adapted to local conditions and circumstances. Far from being passive followers, the developing world looks set to lead in the implementation and widespread adoption of these emerging technologies.



Patients at a hospital in New York wear RFID wristbands containing information on their medical histories and treatments.
This helps hospital staff to provide safer and better care

Standardization is needed

Standardization is essential for the mass deployment and diffusion of any technology. Today’s Internet and mobile phones would not have thrived without standards. As the Internet of Things becomes reality, standardization protocols will become even more complex, with almost every computing element and household object having the potential to be part of a network. Currently, standards remain fragmented among the relevant, new technologies. To make the Internet of Things a reality, this issue of standardization must be systematically addressed to ensure the interoperability of communication protocols.

What privacy?

So, the technical infrastructure for the Internet of Things is being put into place, and the telecommunications industry views it as a lucrative, new market. But do consumers really want fridges that automatically order groceries, or vacuum cleaners that can directly report faults to their makers? Also, because sensors and smart tags could be used to track peoples’ movements and habits without their knowledge, profound concerns over privacy and data protection remain widespread. When monitor screens carry cameras, and doorknobs carry fingerprint sensors, current concepts of privacy are likely to become outdated. Invisible and constant data exchange will occur — on a massive scale — between things and people, and between things and other things, unknown to the “owners” of such data. Who will ultimately control the data collected by the electronic ears and eyes surrounding us?

Public concerns and active campaigns by consumers have already scuppered commercial trials of RFID by two well-known retailers. To promote the more widespread adoption of the technologies underlying the Internet of Things, principles of informed consent, data confidentiality and security must be safeguarded. Unless there are concerted efforts to protect these values, involving all government, civil society and private sector stakeholders, there will be delays in achieving the potential benefits of a fully-fledged Internet of Things.



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