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Deploying IoT in Smart Spaces: Challenges and Best Practices

Smart spaces can be defined in many different ways. Parks Associates defines “smart spaces” as physical locations, equipped with networked devices and sensors-based solutions, that give individuals data about the location’s parameters and how the space is being used. “Smart spaces” are most commonly buildings but may be any type of location, including outdoor structures or vehicles.

Smart spaces have a strong overlap with smart home, industrial IoT, and Industry 4.0, making use of the same concept of networked sensors feeding into larger data platforms.

Industry 4.0 refers to the fourth industrial revolution, which digitalizes industrial processes through the use of IoT technologies and cyber/physical systems. It provides businesses with new levels of visibility and control, allowing them to collect and analyze data, optimize operations and logistics, and automate processes and decision-making.

Deploying IoT in these various environments has its challenges. Many of these challenges are the same, regardless of the deployment environment. On the organizational side, there is the need for proper planning and working with key stakeholders to ensure that solutions are well-designed for the task at hand, accepted and understood by those who would use them, and provide the appropriate ROI.

Regarding technical challenges and roadblocks, Parks Associates has identified three key challenges that players across the ecosystem must be prepared to face as well as the best practices to address them. In addition to these technical challenges, it is important that customers – property managers, construction firms, building owners, etc. – be served with complete proposals that eliminate the pain of coordinating multiple solutions across stakeholders. Ideally, solutions include software platforms with services, apps, networks, connectivity, hardware and installation. Multi-vendor environments must include clear communication and coordination between partners, with top solutions including a single point of communication – one hand to shake.

Integration in Multi-Vendor Environments

Integration is a key challenge for businesses and the vendors who coordinate their technology ecosystems; interoperability is important for the unified experience. There are many players serving the smart spaces and IoT market, including many different hardware and software players. It is critical to ensure that this technology plays nicely together. In the case of software, if integrations between different components don’t already exist, they need to be written, and this work can be more expensive and time-consuming than the purchase and installation of the actual hardware.

In terms of equipment, a complicating factor is the sheer number and variety of IoT communications protocols available on the market. These range from more accessible – yet power-hungry – protocols such as Wi-Fi, 4G LTE, and Bluetooth, to lower-power IoT-specific protocols including Zigbee and Z-Wave.

As a networking technology, Wi-Fi serves many use cases and is widely available and understood. This makes it a good first choice for companies looking to deploy IoT. However, there are some environments where Wi-Fi may not be reliable, such as areas with high interference from other Wi-Fi networks and devices or with physical obstructions such as brick walls, metal framing, or certain types of insulation. Wi-Fi is also power-hungry relative to other IoT protocols, meaning that it does not serve well for use cases where IoT devices must rely on battery-power.

Other IoT-specific technologies such as Bluetooth Low-Energy (BLE), Thread, Zigbee, Z-Wave, and others are more power efficient and less likely to experience (or cause) issues with interference. However, Z-Wave and Zigbee both require hubs for translation to Wi-Fi and linking back to the source. Thread, by contrast, uses internet protocol (IP) to communicate, and as with BLE, it is increasingly being built into routers.

The Promise of Matter – a Collaborative Breakthrough in Integration

The many IoT standards has long been an issue for product adoption and rollout. In 2019, to help resolve this complication, and improve adoption, a group including Amazon, Apple, Google, Comcast, Technicolor, and other members of the Connectivity Standards Alliance – then known as the Zigbee Alliance – announced the Connected Home over IP working group, which sought to develop a standardized IoT communications protocols over IP. That standard, known as Matter, officially launched in early 2021.

Matter makes use of several standard radio protocols, such as Thread, Bluetooth Low Energy, and Wi-Fi, for communication with and provisioning of IoT devices. Because it is standardized, it works regardless of brand ecosystem – any Matter-certified device will work with any Matter-compliant sensor or controller. This allows hardware makers to better differentiate their products, by delivering end-to-end IP to devices, and better supporting the separation between the network and application layers. New Wi-Fi gateways are also increasingly incorporating Matter and the appropriate radios into their designs – effectively serving as low-friction IoT hubs.

Need for Solution Scalability

Businesses looking to deploy solutions must also keep in mind operational efficiencies and their five-to-ten-year technology roadmap. Many businesses might start with deploying IoT solutions at a single location, which can be an excellent way to evaluate the technology, estimate ROI, and gain valuable knowledge on specifics and best practices. However, businesses must be careful that the solutions they select be capable of delivering the same returns when installed at multiple facilities, in different states or countries, and that the solutions support their technology roadmap. Scalability and adaptability are essential.

Businesses must be prepared to work with cloud-based solutions, IT infrastructure capable of taking data from multiple systems and combining it into a single comprehensive dataset, and vendors capable of providing service throughout large geographic footprints.

Connectivity: A Top Challenge in MDUs

The ownership and business models for internet infrastructure in MDUs are complicated. A property might be served by a single ISP or by several. The MDU may have financial agreements with the ISP, wherein the ISP pays them for marketing and, previously, exclusivity – or the MDU might be paying the ISP to be able to offer service to their residents. Oftentimes residents contract directly with the ISP to receive service; however, some MDUs bundle the service into the cost of rent, with CPE pre-installed and internet available at move-in.

In February 2022, the US Federal Communications Commission issued a new ruling banning exclusive revenue-sharing agreements between landlords and ISPs in MDUs and commercial multi-tenant environments. The commission also clarified that “sale and leaseback” agreements, wherein ISPs sell the wiring inside of buildings to the MDU, which leases it back to ISP, is in violation of existing pro-competition rulings. These rules apply retroactively, invalidating existing agreements. This may ultimately make it easier for integrators and solutions providers to deploy IoT within MDU environments but introduces additional complexity in the short run as MDUs and ISPs work to understand the impact to existing contracts.

Networking Technology and Access Point Deployment

Another complicating factor is the structure of the community’s deployments of internal wiring and access points and at times even the availability of power sources. Internal wiring may vary wildly, according to the age of the community and whether the community has decided to upgrade its internet service. Coax cable is extremely common, but solutions providers may also expect to find Ethernet or copper lines. New MDUs are beginning to install fiber to better meet the ever more demanding needs of tenants, and some also have access points that they or their ISP own and operate scattered throughout the community, used to offer public internet access and a private network for staff. Generally, residents are responsible for arranging service from their ISP, but some MDUs are starting to deploy and own the access points within renters’ units.

A growing percentage of MDUs are now offering community Wi-Fi through managed Wi-Fi solutions, where access points are distributed throughout the property, providing Wi-Fi to the entire community. Unlike legacy community Wi-Fi deployments, these new solutions do not use splash pages or captive portals – instead, they allow residents to log in to their own home network regardless of where they are on a property via virtual LAN (VLAN) technology. They make use of network slicing and other virtualization tools to provide better security, and they use AI to optimize Wi-Fi performance. Headless IoT devices work fine in these types of environments – and deployments are oftentimes easier, as devices can be provisioned with one SSID and password and work regardless of their location.

To deploy IoT solutions to MDUs using these different models requires different strategies and techniques. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions. ISPs may be an additional stakeholder in the conversation, depending on the extent of their collaboration and contracts with MDUs.

This is an excerpt from the research whitepaper: Simplifying the IoT Edge: Smart Spaces Best Practices in partnership with Technicolor. This whitepaper addresses the demand and growth of IoT edge solutions in smart buildings and smart spaces. It investigates top verticals and use cases such as smart apartments and MDUs, retail and warehousing, and hospitality and building management. It looks at common challenges and best practices in deploying solutions into these environments, examining new open solutions compatible with many different networking technologies.

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