How to ruin the Internet of things: Tie up with a carrier

It's bad enough that a smartphone is tied to a specific network. Imagine what happens if your car, fridge, alarm, or other long-lived equipment is

The tech industry is going gaga over the Internet of things, a nebulous set of technologies that make everything from refrigerators to body sensors and wearables communicate with each other and with apps on your smartphone, tablet, PC, and Internet services. One example of the Internet of things mania is Cisco Systems chairman John Chambers' declaration that the market will be worth $19 trillion, a figure larger than the entire U.S. gross domestic product.

But if you look past the hype, there is a lot of exciting, useful technology -- much of it mobile -- being developed under the "Internet of things" rubric. What scares me is that if the crazy hype doesn't kill the Internet of things in its tracks, the cellular carriers might do it in.

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The cellular carriers are salivating over the Internet of things, as they see it creating huge demand for cellular data services over their 3G and 4G networks, as devices all try to talk to each other for reasons both smart and stupid. Of course, they want to own as much as that service as possible. In fact, the carriers have been eyeing this market for years, preparing to own as much of it as possible.

So you have, for example, Audi and Tesla both agreeing to make their future cars run their embedded computing systems over AT&T's U.S. cellular network. You have alarm companies tying up with AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, or Verizon to provide communication between alarm systems and the monitoring office over cellular, as landline phones continue to disappear from homes. AT&T and General Electric are also looking at ways to embed machine-to-machine (M2M) cellular radios in industrial equipment, transmitting through the AT&T network, of course.

Any buyer in their right mind should recoil in horror at the thought. Any device or service provider should too.

Imagine your car being tied to a specific carrier for its lifespan, which these days is easily a decade. Now think about the inconsistencies in your carrier's cellular coverage: It's great here, terrible there. That coverage quality changes over time even in the same location. At my house, for example, the Verizon voice service that has worked reasonably well for a decade no longer can keep a call active for more than five minutes, and Verizon has no clue why that changed, much less what to do about it.

Do you really want your car, refrigerator, alarm system, and so on to be stuck with a single provider, no matter where you live or drive? It's bad enough with smartphones and tablets, but imagine that situation with something you can't easily replace.

Some neighbors experienced this issue firsthand with their alarm service, which was tied to T-Mobile. Problem is, T-Mobile's signal in the central part of San Francisco where I live ranges from poor to nonexistent. At my neighbor's house, it is nonexistent, so my neighbor's alarm can't connect with the monitoring service. The alarm company of course can't swap out the radio or SIM card to change carrier -- its deal is with T-Mobile, and T-Mobile only. As a result, my neighbors had to pay for a landline they otherwise don't need, on top of several hundred dollars more for the replacement equipment and service to connect the alarm to it.

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