Ofcom sets out plans to support the Internet of Things

27 January 2015

Connected worldOfcom is today taking steps to ensure the UK plays a leading role in developing the Internet of Things.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is an emerging sector which is likely to see billions of smart gadgets and devices wirelessly connected to the internet and each other.

The IoT's services span industries from agriculture and energy to transport, healthcare and much more, with the potential for significant benefits to citizens and consumers.

Applications range from wirelessly connected sensors used for 'smart' farming, where fertilizer and water are automatically distributed across a farm to increase efficiency, to intelligent traffic management systems and smart energy grids, which match power generated to consumers' electricity needs.

There are already over 40 million devices connected via the IoT in the UK alone. This is forecast to grow more than eight-fold by 2022, with hundreds of millions of devices carrying out more than a billion daily data transactions. 

Working with industry and Government, Ofcom wants to create a regulatory environment which fosters investment and innovation in the IoT.

Key areas of work

Smart-farming

What is it?

Fertilizer, fodder and water distributed across the farm in the right quantities, in the right places, and at the right time.

How does it work?

In the future low-cost wirelessly connected machine-to-machine (M2M) sensors are likely to be sown into fields to measure moisture at different depths below ground. This information will be beamed wirelessly to a central control system, which sends water to the crops that need it and at a rate that best permeates the ground with minimum waste.

After harvest, grain stores need to be cooled to preserve cereals and minimise any insect activity. M2M communications would also be used to monitor and control the storage conditions of these crops, reducing energy costs, improving food quality and reducing wastage.

What are the benefits?

Better tasting, more nutritious crops produced with less water, fertiliser, pesticides and energy.

With a growing population, there is an increasing demand to improve the productivity of farmland while also protecting the environment. Studies show that M2M irrigation systems can produce water savings of 70%, reducing the need for fertilizers and pesticides and lowering the environmental impacts of farming. Not only that, smart irrigation techniques produced sweeter fruit with higher vitamin C levels.

Timescales: Emerging today and mainstream in 10 years.

Click here for more case studies.

Ofcom has identified several priority work areas following input from stakeholders in 2014:

  • Spectrum availability: many IoT devices will communicate wirelessly, making the availability of spectrum - the raw material that underpins wireless services - an important factor. Ofcom's analysis has shown much of the IoT's short to medium-term spectrum demands are met with current initiatives. However, Ofcom will continue to monitor the IoT's spectrum needs to help identify when additional spectrum may be needed.
  • Data privacy: protection of individuals' personal information is a key part of the development of the IoT and will be covered under existing legislation, such as the Data Protection Act 1998. However, traditional approaches to data privacy may have limitations in the context of the IoT. Ofcom will work with the Information Commissioner's Office, government, other regulators and industry to explore solutions to data privacy issues in the IoT.
  • Network security and resilience: as the IoT plays a larger part in people's daily lives, secure and reliable networks and data storage will become increasingly important. With this in mind, Ofcom will investigate how its existing activities on security and resilience of the UK's communications networks can include the IoT.
  • Network addressing: IoT services will likely use bespoke addressing systems or addresses based on the internet standard known as IPv6, the latest version of the Internet Protocol which is able to support connections between a significantly greater number of devices. To support this, Ofcom will continue to monitor the progress already being made by internet service providers in supporting IPv6 connectivity.

Planning for the future

It is expected that globally up to 50 billion 'smart' devices, ranging from cars and parking meters to coffee machines and combine harvesters could be connected to the internet by 2020, each using tiny slivers of spectrum to get online.

Ofcom's plan is to ensure the UK has the tools and infrastructure to allow the IoT to develop unhindered. To support this, Ofcom has already released spectrum for machine to machine uses making the UK among the first countries in Europe to do so.

The plans set out today will mean Ofcom works closely with government, other regulators and industry to remove any unnecessary barriers to the IoT's development, while building a regulatory environment which fosters innovation and ensures issues, such as data protection, are addressed.

Steve Unger, Acting Ofcom Chief Executive, said: “The Internet of Things will bring benefits to a range of sectors and could change the way we live our lives.

“As a result of this growth, we have listened closely to industry and want to develop a framework for this technology to evolve in a way which will ultimately benefit citizens and consumers.”