Can You Hear Me Now? No.

Technology moves faster than I can sometimes believe, but generally we take the view that speed is an opportunity rather than a problem. However, as connectivity becomes more ubiquitous and stretches beyond people to things, rapid obsolescence can make life difficult.

A recent example was the shutdown in February of U.S. analog networks that left subscribers to GM’s OnStar systems whose cars were sold after 2004 unable to upgrade their radios. In the Midwest, Illinois Valley Cellular is keeping their analog network running because wind turbines in the service area have radios that rely on it to communicate.

For a much bigger potential problem, look to Europe, where companies are using the current GSM/GPRS network for wireless backhaul on meter-reading systems. In 2001, Italian utility ENEL deployed more than 27 million smart meters, creating a two-way communication between the meters and the home that enables demand-response programs, automatic turn on/shutoff, and remote meter fault detection. Other European utilities followed this model.

According to a report from ABI Research, GPRS is the cellular technology used for backhaul on these systems, raising obsolescence fears among some utilities concerned that GSM/GPRS will be phased out as 3G networks are deployed. ABI Research believes GSM/GPRS networks will be widely available for at least the next 10 years, but at the 15-year mark, prospects get much more uncertain.

Sure, that’s eons away in innovation years, but as that time frame comes up against the investment and amortization schedules used by utility companies (which can leave meters in homes for decades), it’s important to think about the technology you’re installing today. Does the technology match the life cycle of the device?

Need an example closer to home? What about in-home wiring? How many of you paid thousands to run cables and even Ethernet (!) throughout your home to connect speakers, computers or whatever, only to see advances in wireless devices negate the investment? Or (more recently) upgraded your wireless network only to realize 802.11g isn’t backward compatible with 802.11a? That’s not as bad as having to pay to keep an analog network operating so electricity is still generated, or watching a section of your dashboard turn into a useless lump, but it’s galling nonetheless.

Assuming that we don’t buy new cars every few years, or want to dig up the newly connected sprinkler system in our lawn every decade, what can be done? I thought about hooking home appliances or sprinkler systems into a Wi-Fi network, where you could just change the router when the backhaul technology changed. But that depends on the chips in the actual devices being backward compatible with whatever version of Wi-Fi is on the new router.

Utilities have the market power to sign contracts with cellular providers to keep networks up and running for their use. For consumers, however, although it may not be a problem today, as more things (especially things that cost more than a handset or laptop) connect to the Internet, figuring out how to keep them connected through the long life of the product and short life of technology will become an issue.


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