Jonesing for WiFi in China

The American national anthem ends with the lyrics “Land of the free and home of the brave”.  After two weeks in China, I suggest it be amended to read:  “America, land of the free WiFi, and home of the easily irritated when not available.” 

Don’t get me wrong – I love China and my inaugural two week trip was great.  I met business partners and made new friends, crossed a couple of items off of my bucket list, and learned that a Beijing hot mustard sauce makes wasabi barely qualify as a heat-inducing experience.  But China, for all its focus on the Internet of Things (IoT) lacks ubiquitous wireless networks, and that will shape the development and deployment of related applications. 

My purpose in going to China was to present at a conference on ubiquitous networks, because the Smart Grid, as a subset of the IoT, depends on bi-directional communications and full connectivity between devices and with people.  As discussed in my October 17 blog, the Smart Grid is a collection of small to large networks that connect devices and use embedded intelligence in the forms of sensing and control to deliver and manage electricity.  My talk focused on the converged power and communications network management challenges that Smart Grid networks present to utilities, and how we can apply lessons and best practices from telecommunications network management – and in particular the management of data accumulated from Smart Grid network operations – to accelerate the learning curve climb for utilities. 

Meeting with researchers from around the globe, we explored new technologies that may factor into the IoT and Smart Grid networks, including advances that would reduce power consumption in devices that use WiFi and more efficient utilizations of XML (eXtensible Markup Language), which transports and stores data, to encourage more modular, scalable and flexible applications.  What that really means is making it very easy to deliver a connection for any device, any time, any where, and have extremely low maintenance needs.    For instance, a smart or communicating thermostat in your home should be able to self-register (join your home’s wireless network or Home Area Network or HAN), and operate with very low power consumption requirements so if it is battery-operated, it would only need to be replaced every 10 years or more.   

This is the vision of the IoT and the Smart Grid.  And so armed with tablet and smart phone, I headed to China, where I discovered that it’s a wired country.  Yes, I could get broadband wired access in hotel rooms, but not WiFi.  The hunt was on for hotels that supported in-room WiFi, but even at the conference, WiFi was not offered to conference-goers.  Other equally WiFi-addicted attendees found it just a bit ironic that a conference about ubiquitous networks didn’t have one. 

And that’s a significant contrast between the western world (USA and Europe) and China.  In the USA and Europe, WiFi is proliferating as smart phones and tablets are adopted by consumers.   Some Smart Grid industry watchers believe that this trend will just accelerate as more consumers expect to monitor and control home operations such as AC temperatures or water heater settings using smart phones and tablets.  Think of these as horizontal applications in which a variety of devices from multiple manufacturers can co-exist, communicate and share data, and function according to simple business rules that make sense for a majority of consumers.  It’s a bit messy and chaotic, but ultimately a very decentralized model that encourages easy and inexpensive access to WiFi.  In China, the IoT trendline is in specialized, vertical operations that deploy sensors to improve coal mine safety or monitor industrial processes for pollution emissions.  It’s carefully planned and controlled at municipal to federal levels, and creates wireless islands in tethered ecosystems that deliver many benefits for individuals and society at large.  And certainly, China is focusing significant resources into building IoT knowledge.  But it’s an approach that is more akin to how the USA is rolling out microgrid deployments as point by point vertical solutions rather than the broad horizontal deployments of wireless access points.

It will be interesting to see how these different models play out, and the next time I’m in China, it remains to be learned if I’m once again desperately seeking WiFi to remain untethered, but connected to the rest of the world.