IoT will be one of the largest and most complex machines on the planet. And its economic impact will be huge. In a 2022 report, analyst McKinsey suggested the IoT’s value could be as much as $12.5 trillion by 2030. But the only way the IoT can reach this size is if all the components are built to global engineering standards. Without standards there’s no way to guarantee that parts of the network-potentially built by different companies and situated a long way from each other-will work in harmony.
Nordic has been an enthusiastic advocate for wireless standards for decades. The company realised that low power wireless connectivity was going to be big business from the beginning, but it also realised it would be much, much bigger if everyone worked to standards. Mainstream adoption of wireless technology has consistently been proven to be greatly accelerated if customers can see it is internationally backed and there’s a healthy ecosystem of competing suppliers.
Moreover, standards adoption gives customers confidence that the technology will thrive, and they are not subject to the whims of a single supplier. They are also reassured that a device compatible with a given standard will seamlessly interoperate with other devices built to the same standard from a range of different suppliers.
Reaching a consensus
Apart from being the son of William the Conqueror, English 12th century monarch King Henry I was known for his talent for administration and an early realisation that standards were a good thing. At the time, the “yard”, a measure of distance similar to the meter, was anything but consistent. Henry decided it needed defining and decreed it should be the distance from his nose to the thumb on his outstretched arm. While this was somewhat arbitrary, it was at least a definition that everyone could agree upon.
That is essentially what standards represent: a consensus among experts in an area of the best way of measuring, defining, testing, or achieving something. The rules and regulations are written down and officially adopted such that everyone knows exactly how everyone else will implement things. In the manufacturing sector, if everyone sticks to the standards, everything we make will work seamlessly together no matter who constructed it.
Why standards are a good thing
Standards make clear sense to us today, but it wasn’t always the case. “When things don’t work as they should, it often means standards are absent,” says an ISO (International Organisation for Standardisation) spokesperson. The organisation-a global standards group-could have been talking about the early railways in the U.K. Two rival engineers, George Stephenson and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, tried to impose their respective gauges (the distance between rails) on the countrywide network.
Stephenson chose 4ft 8.5in (1.44 meters) for his gauge based on the axle width of the horse-drawn carts of the day. Brunel choose 7ft 0.25in (2.14 meters) arguing it would lead to smoother and faster journeys. The result was that passengers and freight had to change trains whenever the two gauges met. In 1892, the UK’s rail authorities adopted Stephenson’s gauge as the standard and ripped up Brunel’s railways. It was a good move; by 1914 there was around 32,000 kilometres of 1.44 meter gauge track used daily by rolling stock from 120 competing companies.
The ISO recently conducted an analysis of the impact of standards and came to three major conclusions:
• Standards reduce the time needed to perform specific activities in the various business functions, decreasing waste, reducing procurement costs, and increasing productivity.
• They served as the basis for innovating business processes, allowing companies to expand their suppliers’ network or to introduce and manage new products effectively. In other instances, standards helped mitigate the risk to companies of introducing new products onto national markets.
• Standards have been used as the basis for developing new products, penetrating new markets (both domestic and export), supporting the market uptake of products, and even creating markets.
Getting things organised
Standards organisations come in all shapes and sizes. For example, the ISO was founded in 1947 with the idea of answering a fundamental question: “what’s the best way of doing this?” Starting with the obvious things like weights and measures, the organisation now administers over 24,750 standards covering all aspects of daily life.
In the wireless sector bodies such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) develop, maintain, and administer specifications that detail exactly how wireless tech should be built. The IEEE, for example, produces a standard that details how wireless local area network (WLAN, also known as Wi-Fi) media access control and physical layer must be designed. The WLAN standard, IEEE 802.11, encompasses a suite of standards including 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6), and is itself part of IEEE 802, a set of local area network (LAN) standards.
Another example of an important standards organisation in the wireless IoT sector is the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP). The group was originally set up to define standards for 3G networks and today is mapping out 5G and 6G standards. These include those for cellular IoT specifications such as LTE-M and NB-IoT which build on cellular networks as a foundation for massive IoT.
From the 12th century until the 21st, standards have ensured the best engineering minds work towards the same objective, even if they are employed by competing companies and live in different countries. That makes for rapid advances in technology while ensuring end-products are robust, reliable, and interoperable. The alternative approach leads to fragmentation, lack of innovation, and stalled progress.