Making Things Interesting: Ad Net Market Media and Cisco’s IoT Journey Into the Future
The Internet of Things is the next big shift in technology. IoT—for short—is already out there, but in a limited way. For example, I have kids who always leave the lights on, wasting money and energy. With IoT technology, I can turn the lights off remotely, using my smartphone. This is a simple application that requires a switch and a sensor. It isn’t earth-shattering, but it’s practical.
As Chief Technology Innovation Officer at Ad Net Market Media, I am helping our company expand into the IoT market. I have to admit that a lot of IoT these days isn’t revolutionary, but there are some exciting applications out there. One example that comes to mind is bridge monitoring hardware. Bridges here in Romania—like in the rest of Europe—are quite old. Because they are such an important part of our road network, we can't stop cars from crossing them.
Romanian authorities have put sensors on some of these bridges. They measure traffic, stress at key points, and the rate at which the bridge is vibrating. If stress and vibrations are too high for traffic levels, they schedule maintenance.
Similar sensors also measure vibrations in oil wells. If there's too much stress, they can stop drilling, thus preventing damage to the equipment, or an explosion.
From ISP to IoT
While the example with Romanian bridges is interesting, it doesn’t involve Ad Net. Our story is an ISP one—or at least it started off that way. In Romania, we have some of the fastest internet in the world. We're not up to the speeds of South Korea, but we have the highest average peak connection speed on the planet. In 2013, Timisoara—our third biggest city—had the fastest download speed of any city in the world.
This might surprise you, but there's a story to it. In the early 2000s, there was an explosion of small ISPs. There were hundreds of small providers who sprung up almost overnight. There was no regulation and ISPs didn't have to pay taxes. If you could wire a neighborhood or a city, you were in business.
That's how Ad Net started. It was a profitable business until the major players moved in. They could afford to install fiber underground, and also started to buy up smaller providers.
We couldn't compete with that, so we looked at other business opportunities. Our first choice was IPTV. With Romania's high-speed networks, it was easy to set aside a few megabytes of bandwidth for video on demand. We had the technology and the expertise, but we lacked the marketing clout.
Ad Net is a small company. At any given time, we have 30 employees at most. We don't have the financial and capital resources for a national marketing push. We couldn't deploy the kind of campaign needed to successfully launch IPTV. There was no way to build a sales team that could blanket the country with ads. The business model did not fit our reality.
The majors had us beat again. We couldn't compete by offering a consumer product at the national level. Geography and momentum worked against us. We needed to focus on an emerging market that played to our strengths, and so we went into cloud computing.
Ad Net operates two Tier III data centers with tens of thousands of cores. We use Cisco UCS and VMware to provide performance and infrastructure as a service. Cloud computing doesn't need a huge investment in human resources. We've added a handful of people to our team: a couple of system engineers, as well as some marketing and sales people.
Most of our customers find us online. This makes it easy for a lean business like ours to compete with the majors in cloud computing. But, as history has shown us, if we don't innovate we'll disappear.
Software Is the Key to IoT
After we built our data centers, we started to look for ways we could use our extra capacity. As we deployed cloud servers and virtual machines, we saw that a major shift was in progress. Network technology is no longer about hardware. Everything is software driven.
When people think about the Internet of Things, they often imagine it as hardware, but the key is software.
A smart speaker—for example—is a bunch of physical parts. There's a microphone, a network card, the speaker itself, and a power supply. But none of these components make it smart. You need software to play your favorite song on demand. Think of it this way: Siri is the software that improves the experience of using your iPhone. The best hardware money can buy will be hobbled by inadequate software.
At the most basic level, IoT is packet data that our servers can process. The trick is to send it back and forth between real-world endpoints and our network. Once again, Ad Net has partnered with Cisco to launch this exciting new service.
The core technology of IoT is LoRaWAN. It is a Low Power Wide Area Network specification for wireless battery-powered devices, called Things. These Things—for example, sensors—communicate wirelessly with nearby gateways. The data is fully encrypted using unique network, application, and device keys. It flows both ways. Things can send data to the cloud for processing. Users and applications can push updates from the cloud to these devices.
As we've done with our cloud products, we are not providing applications to end users. Our product is secure and open access to our IoT infrastructure and architecture for software developers and integrators.
Building a Turnkey IoT Solution
Our turnkey IoT product is a combination of software and onsite hardware. We set up and manage this infrastructure for our customers. It runs on Actility ThingPark suite of LoRaWAN software solutions, and Cisco hardware. They bring their own devices and software.
ThingPark includes a core network management and supervision solution for LPWA connectivity. ThingPark OS is a development environment that connects sensors to applications. ThingPark X is a data analytics framework that collects information from connected devices. Finally, ThingPark Market is a B2B e-commerce destination. It offers IoT solutions providers an easy way to create digital marketing and monetization strategies.
Our onsite IoT hardware installation uses two Cisco products. A Cisco 829 Industrial Integrated Services Router provides 3G/4G LTE WAN cellular and wireless LAN connectivity. Rugged and compact, it brings enterprise-class services to moving vehicles, and harsh or public environments.
This portable router pairs to three IXM-LPWA wireless gateways. These carrier-grade devices use unlicensed sub-gigahertz radio frequencies to connect to IoT endpoints. These endpoints include low data rate, battery powered devices, and sensors that can perform various functions. They can be used for things like asset tracking, water and gas metering, environmental monitoring, and smart street lighting.
You've probably seen some form of this technology in action. The electronic display that announces vehicle arrivals in a bus terminal is IoT. Smart parking meters are also part of the Internet of Things.
Ad Net built a couple of IoT prototype systems and tested them on existing transit lines. These successful trials told us we were ready to jump into the Internet of Things.
Our IoT system is already up and running. The first gateways are connected, and we have started to develop our own framework. The idea is to keep things as simple as possible. We install the gateways and the router, and we manage our client’s devices. They enter or scan the serial numbers of their sensors and other endpoints. We register and provision the device, and it can start sending and receiving data.
What our clients do with their gateways and routers is up to them. We are not supplying end users. Our solution provides a limited dashboard that displays some sensor data. Our API integrates with their solutions. Customers can code or purchase apps that deliver the data and functions they need.
All this is new, and very exciting. In fact, Ad Net is one of the first companies in the world to use Actility ThingPark in-house as part of a turnkey IoT solution. We did this with expert guidance from Cisco.
The Cisco Difference
Cisco was a huge part of this transition, and not just from a technical perspective. I've worked with Cisco products since I was 17 years old, and I understand how their technology works. But the level of service we get from Cisco is unparalleled.
Cisco products are well-tested and robust, even when they're new releases. The distribution channels are second to none. I know my orders will arrive when promised, and as promised. There are no surprises.
Cisco also takes an interest in what we're doing. When Ad Net pitches a new project or product, Cisco asks, "How can we help you?" We're a small partner compared to the major telcos and ISPs, but Cisco's team treats us with the same responsiveness and respect they afford a multinational.
IoT is very much in the early stages. A lot of our work is educating our customers and our partners. We have to convince them of the potential of the technology. It's one thing to explain how to enter a sensor ID, or to configure a unique IP address for a gateway. It's another to say, "You know, you can use IoT to track cats' collars in your animal shelter."
We're also trying to teach our customers how to monetize IoT. Ad Net is not interested in selling a solution and walking away. We are building our IoT network and framework to create revenue-sharing agreements. We are looking at potential revenue models. Perhaps our partners can charge their customers a small fee—maybe 10 or 20 cents—per device. We're still formulating our plan.
The Future of IoT
One thing is certain: People have to get used to the idea that everything will soon be connected to the internet. Your shoes will be smart, they'll tell you how far you've walked, and how worn your soles are. When you walk past the corner store, your refrigerator will send you a text telling you to pick up a litre of milk. You’ll also be guided to the exact location of the dairy section.
This may seem frightening and invasive, but Google and Yelp know where you are. They can recommend a good restaurant even when you're in a foreign city. I find this all very benign. My phone tells Google where I am, and I get quality local information. It's a fair trade.
While Ad Net is an early adopter of IoT, we are a small operation. Widespread adoption is coming, but it won't happen unless the major players step in. We need a company like Cisco to spark the next large innovation.
Smart speakers are the big thing right now, but they're an extension of streaming services. Smartwatches and home automation are making consumers comfortable with personal sensor technology. But again, these are very simple applications. The truly innovative ideas are right around the corner.
Cisco has been a constant throughout our history. Cisco's technologies and distribution channels are robust and reliable. We couldn't have moved into IoT without Cisco. In less than 20 years, we've gone from broadband to the Internet of Things. When the next exciting technology emerges, Ad Net will be ready. As a small company, we are immune to institutional paralysis, but we need strong partners to help us move into the future.