The IoT Zombie Problem

Mmm — Brains.

There are a lot of residential Internet-of-Things devices available that can connect to my home Wi-Fi network and provide some functionality: Thermostats, security cameras, light switches, connected speakers, and so forth. Some devices even defy classification. Cardinal Peak gave all its employees the choice to receive an Amazon Echo this past holiday season, and while I love Alexa I’m not certain what category of device she is.

All these connected devices provide some novelty value, and some of them might even improve my life in the long-term — though the jury’s still out on that front.

One thing is for sure: Keeping all of these devices connected to my home Wi-Fi network is a growing problem. Provisioning a new wireless device in the first place can be difficult for non-tech-savvy homeowners, but most people are usually motivated to get a new product working properly.

However, what happens when I get a new Wi-Fi router? In a few years, I could envision having a new Wi-Fi password and not remembering all of the devices that were connected in my home, or not seeing enough benefit to go through the hassle to reconnect everything. And at the moment it’s pretty difficult to get an inventory of everything that’s connected to a Wi-Fi network.

This is where IoT zombies will be born.

zombie image
The initial provisioning (and re-provisioning) of an IoT device is one of the most difficult parts of designing and using an IoT product. There have been several attempts to simplify this over the years. Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) was intended to make Wi-Fi connections simple, but it’s not secure and router manufacturers didn’t implement it consistently. As a result, it’s falling by the wayside. Z-Wave and Zigbee are great technologies but still require a (proprietary) central hub to connect to the Internet. Most IoT vendors want their products to connect directly to the Internet without a hub, so Wi-Fi is becoming the dominant wireless platform for IoT, at least for those devices that have wall power available.There could be multiple solutions to this problem. For HVAC and utility monitors, a cellular data connection may be better than Wi-Fi. A machine-to-machine connection, as it’s called, would allow HVAC and utility companies to offer connected service contracts independent of the homeowner’s Wi-Fi system. Usually plumbing and HVAC installers aren’t qualified or interested in figuring out how to connect to your Wi-Fi network, and the data demands are quite low for these applications, so there can be a benefit in using cellular data.

For other consumer IoT devices, a solution similar to WPS is needed, but one that keeps track of what was on your network and simplifies the process of re-provisioning a bunch of devices. Finally, the guest network that Comcast and other service providers include in their new Wi-Fi routers could evolve into a platform for connected devices, as it is essentially a nationally managed service.