Story of IoT remains unwritten

A group of individuals, most with some kind of connection the technology industry, got together this week in an old industrial building near downtown Ottawa to talk about the Internet of Things (IoT).

The conference, called IoT613, was held in a setting not typical for events catering to white-collar, tech-industry types. The floors and walls were concrete, telling of a past somehow related to warehousing or construction with little to do with computers, software or mobile technology.

It was in a place called the City Centre building, yet this is a spot that has lost its economic prominence in recent decades. It’s a less-than-inviting environment, particularly for a pedestrian with a lack of sidewalks to and around the building. The conference itself was entered from an unobvious area at the back of the building, so organizers were outside to guide people to where they needed to go.

Yet, this is in a district city planners see big things for. With a downtown light-rail system being built as we speak, in three years this spot will serve as the intersection of Ottawa’s two LRTs, with the current north-south route already there. Millions of square feet of office and condominium space is expected to be built here in the coming years, largely as a result of the advantages its status as a premiere transit hub will bring.

Parallels might be drawn between this small part of Ottawa and the promising but uncertain future that awaits IoT.

Some speakers at the event, such as Emeka Nwafor, a senior director with Intel subsidiary Wind River, told attendees that IoT has been with us for many years, but it’s just recently that people gave it a name.

Nonetheless, he said various things are coming together, such as declining costs for things like bandwidth, processing technology and sensors, that make this the ideal time to get involved in this market space.

“Some people think it’s hype,” Nwafor said of IoT. “It’s not. It’s reality.”

He provided an easy-to-understand definition for what IoT is, being a collection of devices that have their own IP addresses that can communicate with other machines that also have IP addresses. It’s being used for a variety of functions  (subs only) right now, including the tracking of vehicles, collection of data in restaurants and retail operations, and helping people automate utilities at home.

Yet a panel discussion at this event about the future of IoT illustrated how predicting exactly how this form of technology will play out in the years ahead is a fool’s game.

“I think that anybody that says the future is predictable is full of shit,” said Rob Woodbridge, moderator of the discussion and a host of video segments on Untether.tv, a website that explores issues of mobile technology.

For example, he noted how people could not have predicted 10 or 20 years ago that smartphones would become the primary screen most people interact with today.

He asked panel members if they foresee a “tipping point” for when IoT becomes a common thing in people’s lives or when the masses finally “get it.”

Edward Ocampo-Gooding, a developer at Shopify, replied: “I don’t know how important it is to distinguish whether we’re at that tipping point yet. I think that it’s just going to slowly creep into our lives and just become a ubiquitous thing, and we’re probably not going to even notice it.”

There was some discussion of whether dominant operating systems or protocols would emerge for IoT to simplify things for developers and consumers alike, much like iOS and Android have done for mobile devices.

It was acknowledged that many of the products and services out there are attempts to capitalize on the novelty of IoT rather than offer true value.

For example, Ocampo-Gooding recalled a Kickstarter campaign he came across where someone was trying to sell reusable laundry detergent that came with a WiFi chip, resulting in the user being electronically notified when the laundry cycle was over plus other analytics about the wash.

In an exchange later in the panel discussion, Ocampo-Gooding was put off when an audience member asked if such gimmicky products were hurting the overall credibility of IoT.

“People are going to make weird stuff. Sometimes people are going to consider it an art form. That’s OK,” he replied.

He later elaborated: “I think it’s really easy to be cynical about new things. I think it’s really easy to point at the kid in your class that’s wearing his hat in a funny way and we’re like, ‘Look at that weirdo.’

“I totally understand where you’re coming from. … Look at all this gimmicky shit that we’re making. … But I think if we’re going to embrace this, the way to do it is to recognize nobody’s ever going to buy a thing because it has the IoT in it. They’re going to buy it because it’s going to help them do something interesting or make them laugh or something along those lines.”

The key to succeeding in IoT, he said, is simply to “go and build something awesome.”

Getting back to the setting where this conference was held, for someone who just happened to be in the vicinity Thursday or Friday, they would have seen several signs around them saying “IoT.” However, they might have been confused about what it was all about or where to go if they wanted to participate.

Derek Abma is editor of The Wire Report. He can be reached at dabma@thewirereport.ca.

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Tracking where you are will soon be a $40-billion business

Most Canadians with a smartphone know that certain apps are keeping track of their location, for example, when they order a ride from Uber or monitor the distance they’ve jogged.

But they may not be aware that other apps on their phone — like the free game Angry Birds — are also tracking where they are. So are retailers and wireless providers, as part of an industry projected to grow almost fivefold in the next four years.

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre put out a report (subs only) Tuesday, asking both the CRTC and the Office of the Privacy Commissioner to do more research on the practice of tracking Canadians through their mobile devices. PIAC concluded that it’s “not clear if Canada’s privacy regime is sufficiently responsive to Canadians’ concerns with location-based informational privacy.”

A phone survey PIAC commissioned in 2014 showed that 30 per cent of respondents said they didn’t know whether or not their smartphones were subject to tracking, while 77 per cent of respondents were very or somewhat uncomfortable with the concept, according to the report.

And there are a number of different ways Canadians’ whereabouts are monitored. Location tracking is being increasingly integrated into more and more apps, for instance. Some telecom companies are commercializing their ability to know where your phone is. Rogers, for instance, has a service that texts customers who have signed up when they are near a participating retail location. And the use by businesses of radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology is growing, PIAC said.

Some stores have sensor systems known as mobile location analytics (MLA), which allows retailers to track mobile devices within their range, gather data like how many repeat visitors stores have, store wait times and ratios of employees to customers.

In one example cited by the PIAC report, a Toronto restaurant using services provided by Turnstyle Analytics Inc. started carrying workout tops with its logo because it knew that 250 of its customers had been to the gym that month.

There are also companies that gather information from multiple sources and resell it. Toronto-based Via Informatics Inc. buys location data from wireless providers and collects data from sensors that detect WiFi and Bluetooth-enabled devices, and from geo-stamped social media posts. It aggregates the customer profiles and related analytics, and sells them to “businesses and public entities that want to know more about the customers that are found in their physical locales,” the report said.

Knowing where you are is worth a lot of money. PIAC cited a forecast from a U.S. research company called MarketsandMarkets that said the global location-based services market will grow from $8.12 billion US in 2014 to $38.87 billion US in 2019.

But whether that means regulatory bodies in Canada will start paying more attention is unclear.

The CRTC declined to comment on PIAC’s call to hold a fact-finding process into “into the collection, use, and disclosure of location information by telecommunications service providers.”

PIAC also said the Office of the Privacy Commissioner should look into consumer awareness and expectations regarding the practice, and “produce clear guidance on the level of consent required from smartphone users before their location can be collected.”

Privacy commissioner spokeswoman Tobi Cohen said in email that while the office is “certainly aware of this report and are reviewing it with interest,” she couldn’t say “at this point in time whether we will be developing guidance that focuses specifically on the form of consent required with respect to location data and smartphones.”

Anja Karadeglija is senior reporter at The Wire Report. She can be reached at akarad@thewirereport.ca.

 

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Election’s coming, let’s talk telecom

There’s going to be a federal election this fall. It’s anyone’s contest to win with three different parties running neck-and-neck in the polls, but nobody wants to talk about what we want to talk about.

Sure, it’s a loss to us at The Wire Report. We’re over here covering these nerdy telecom and media issues, which is fine. But we’d like to join the cool kids in the Parliamentary Press Gallery for a while by providing some election-related coverage. Yes, we would still be addressing nerdy telecom and media issues, but with a little political intrigue thrown in.

Putting aside our own interests, it’s seems that with such a tight contest, parties would want any little advantage they can get. So, if someone from the news media asks you about your plans to deal with telecom and media issues if elected, why not bite? What if that proved to be the thing that got you that extra two or three per cent needed to get over the top?

Yet, we keep hitting a wall whenever we try to find out what the Conservatives, NDP and Liberals have in mind for issues ranging from wireless service, Internet, television, the CBC and other matters.

We’ve been outright ignored by the NDP. The Liberals got back to us with one of those “we’ll look into this” emails, but it went no further. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s people sent us to the office of Industry Minister James Moore, who is not even running in the next election. For some reason, Moore’s office hasn’t been so quick to get back to us on this.

This comes after a term that saw telecommunications and media being not-so-insignificant parts of the political dialogue at times. Remember the feud (subs only) in 2013 between the government and incumbent wireless carriers, who feared Ottawa was courting Verizon to ride into Canada and shake up the mobile industry?

Then there was that time when the CRTC was trying to conduct a hearing on the TV industry, and the government kept telling them not to even think about trying to tax or regulate foreign video-streaming behemoths like Netflix.

The CRTC this year announced that TV-service providers would have to offer skinny basic packages at no more than $25 a month and the option to customers of picking channels beyond that on a one-by-one basis by the end of next year. Then again, the government had already said this was going to be the deal in its throne speech in 2013.

There has been a fair amount of politicking in these areas in recent years. If I’m trying to get Harper re-elected, I might want to take some time in this pre-election period to trumpet some of the government’s accomplishments and spell out where it goes from here.

If I’m in opposition, I would likely want to point out some flaws in the way things were done and outline how my team would do it differently.

It’s not like the opposition has never thought about these issues before. NDP Leader Tom Mulcair called out the government last fall for statements made during the CRTC hearings on TV, which were deemed by some to be an interference in process. Then earlier this year, Mulcair was promising to reverse cuts at the CBC.

When Marc Garneau was running for the Liberal leadership in 2012, he talked about opening up the telecom market to foreign ownership. He didn’t win the leadership, of course, departing early from this race that was eventually won by Justin Trudeau. We haven’t heard much about this from these guys since.

Perhaps the political types have decided not to concern themselves with a niche publication like ours that’s read by a select group of people with a material interest in these topics, rather than the general public.

But they should consider that many ordinary people have strong feelings on issues like the quality and price of wireless, Internet and TV services, digital privacy and the CBC. Our readers include telecom- and media-industry executives, regulators, lawyers, academics and activists. You might call them thought-leaders, and making an impression on them with your election platforms can have a trickle-down effect on those whose votes you are looking to win in October.

So if Harper, Mulcair, Trudeau and their staffs come around to seeing the importance of sharing their thoughts on telecom and media issues at some point before voting day, we’ll be here with ears wide open.

Derek Abma is editor of The Wire Report. He can be reached at dabma@thewirereport.ca.

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For telecoms, it’s all about the Internet

This week, both MTS and Bell launched new Internet plans that were a departure from the status quo — MTS joined its home Internet and wireless data in one plan, while Bell announced a new gigabit Internet service.

In interviews, representatives from the companies said they introduced the new services because, well, the Internet is becoming increasingly important to Canadians and we’re using more and more of it.

“Their applications, their personal content, the information that they’re looking for on the web; it’s just become such an important part of everyday life,” Paul Norris, MTS’ vice-president of brand and consumer marketing said (subs only) regarding the new Total Internet service. It offers both unlimited home Internet at 10 Mbps and wireless data, which has no overage fees, for between $60 for one person to $160 for five.

Bell wouldn’t release pricing for its Gigabit Fibe, which will first be available to about 50,000 homes and businesses in Toronto this summer, later to be extended to 1.1 million, as well as other cities in Quebec, Ontario and Atlantic Canada (essentially, where Bell already has deployed its fibre-to-the-home network). It’s the first big telecom to offer gigabit service, which at 1,000 Mbps is much faster than the average Canadian’s Internet speed (5 and 49 Mbps for downloads and about 1 Mbps for uploads, according to the CRTC).

“Increasingly we see that consumers’ lives revolve around the Internet, and more so in 2015 than ever,” said Nicolas Poitras, vice-president of marketing for Bell’s residential services.

Poitras said Gigabit Fibe would mark a “major shift” in Canadian telecom, while Norris described Total Internet as a “game-changer.” It seems likely we’ll see competitors release interesting offers of their own in the near future.

But MTS’ and Bell’s new services are also symptoms of an ongoing trend toward Internet service becoming telecoms’ core service.

TV watching is moving over-the-top, and the growing popularity of messaging and voice apps and services mean you don’t actually need traditional voice and text or to pay for cable or IPTV service to call your friends or watch TV.  Interestingly, voice and text are an optional add-on to MTS’ new service, making it the only Canadian telecom to offer a data-only plan.

So after decades in which these companies moved from a market where Canadians bought their phone service from the phone company and TV from the cable company to competing with each other in the provision of bundled telecom services, it’s all in the process of shrinking down to one battlefield.

In a world where there’s only one product that matters, all our telecom needs will be met by the Internet service provider.

If this week’s announcements are any indication, it’s going to be an interesting transition to watch — especially given that we’ll find out the new battle rules soon, with the CRTC’s release of its decision on the wholesale wireline market.

Anja Karadeglija is senior reporter at The Wire Report. She can be reached at akarad@thewirereport.ca.

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‘Socially unacceptable’ or not, VPNs aren’t going away

Bell Media’s new boss made headlines this week when she chose to focus her first speech since taking over Kevin Crull’s job on the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) to watch content not available in Canada.

Mary Ann Turcke said using VPNs in this way is “stealing,” and stated that it’s become “socially unacceptable” to admit to such practices — in the same way as throwing garbage out of a car window.

It wasn’t a new position for Bell Media, given that Turcke’s predecessor also equated (subs only) such practices to piracy earlier this year.

But is it the right one?

I’d imagine more people are likely to confess to VPN use at their next dinner party than Turcke would like to admit, but that may be based on an occupational hazard — when I tell people I’m a telecom/media reporter, it’s the kind of topic that tends to come up.

Plus, it’s a practice at least one-third of Canadian Netflix users are willing to admit to, given that’s how many told a recent Media Technology Monitor survey they access American Netflix.

Whether VPN use is actually theft may also not be as clear-cut as Turcke would like it to be. University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist disagreed in a blog post last year, stating that while the practice may be in a legal “grey zone,” it’s not stealing.

He was one of the panelists at a recent discussion during the Rebooting Canada’s Communications Legislation conference, where he and former CRTC commissioner Timothy Denton pointed to the dangers of trying to control such technology.

Denton said using firewalls to control Internet access isn’t compatible with a democratic society, while Geist pointed out VPNs have more important purposes than accessing TV content, including safeguarding communications and privacy, both in Canada and in countries where free speech isn’t a given.

It’s a topic that’s been coming up more frequently in the past year or two (Bell rival Rogers denied an executive called for a ban on VPNs earlier this year).

Turcke’s comments inspired commentary in the telecom/media blogosphere, with Denton arguing that if “government were to engage in a technical arms race with consumers to block access, they will only tunnel deeper to get under the wire.” Peter Nowak wrote that if Bell wants to stop VPNs use, it should make it easier for customers to access the content they want, calling Bell’s tying of its CraveTV streaming service to a TV subscription “extortion.”

It’s a discussion that seems set only to intensify with the growth of streaming services like CraveTV and Rogers’ and Shaw’s Shomi in Canada, and from the likes of HBO, Showtime and CBS in the U.S.

As VPN use becomes a bigger thorn in the side of those selling and buying content, and those selling the streaming services housing that content, it seems likely the courts could eventually be called to weigh in on the issue (though I’ll leave it to the legal experts to speculate on how that would actually play out).

There’s also the possibility, as the Wire Report reported last year, that VPN use could instead eliminate geographic licensing, and we could see content being sold on a world-wide basis instead.

That’s a scenario consumers would likely welcome, but one in which streaming would presumably be dominated by global giants like Netflix — an outcome the likes of Bell and Rogers aren’t likely to relish.

Anja Karadeglija is senior reporter at The Wire Report. She can be reached at akarad@thewirereport.ca.

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