This week, the newly created White House American Technology Council convened a series of policy discussions on the emerging Internet of Things (IoT), something I have discussed here in the past. The news is a welcome and timely development, given the breakneck speed at which IoT technologies are progressing – from driverless cars, to remote surgeries, to 21st Century Smart Cities. In the not-so-distant future, the IoT could be integrated into essentially every aspect of consumers’ daily lives.
But there’s a serious threat lurking to IoT advancements: fair access to essential technology standards – which are included in many consumer products like refrigerators, smartphones and TVs – so that all innovators have a chance to participate in this technological revolution. The promise of the IoT is predicated on the willingness of companies who control IoT technologies – and the Standards Essential Patents (SEPs) in these technologies – to share them with the world.
IoT refers to connectivity, not just between people, but also between people and things, as well as between things and things. When it is fully implemented, billions (eventually trillions) of sensors and communication chips implanted in all kinds of devices will share information and act on it in ways we have only started to imagine.
Smart Cities is a concept frequently associated with the IoT. Among many other things, it will feature cars that not only drive themselves, but also foresee and avoid traffic jams to ease congestion and save energy. Police will know about gunshots as soon as they happen, speeding first response and protecting public safety. Public buildings will constantly monitor and adjust heating and cooling levels, optimizing energy consumption and keeping people more comfortable.
In healthcare, providers and consumers will no longer be separated by geography. Specialists will be able to examine people from thousands of miles away and even perform surgical procedures using real-time robotic tools. Baby pajamas will be able to detect warning signs of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and alert parents and 911 to the danger. That is not a pipedream. Sleepwear like that already exists.
The business applications, from marketing to manufacturing, are boundless. When the whole world is connected, companies that aren’t connected simply won’t be able to compete.
But the IoT is about much more than just a furnace that turns itself on when you pull into the driveway or a refrigerator that orders milk when you’re about to run out. The IoT is going to fundamentally change the way key parts of consumers’ lives function, including healthcare, business and public safety.
Because of that, it’s essential that consumers demand fair business practices now to make sure that all the technology companies involved in creating the IoT work responsibly for the common good in the coming Internet of everything world.
Fair access to IoT technologies for all make the lawsuit filed by the Federal Trade Commission against tech giant Qualcomm so important. The chipmaker has consistently been called out by other tech companies – who depend on patented chips Qualcomm provides – for price gouging and unfair licensing and supply practices. As they have detailed, Qualcomm has clearly used its chip monopoly in cellular technologies to stunt competition by refusing to adhere to its license obligations under fair, reasonable and nondiscriminatory or FRAND terms, and is now seeking to extend its dominance (and bad licensing behavior) to gain control of the burgeoning IoT space.
The FTC isn’t alone. Apple has also sued Qualcomm in Federal Court. They and other tech innovators contend they have paid billions of dollars in royalties that violate the rules governing SEPs such as those Qualcomm holds on a variety of microchips. South Korean and Chinese regulators have already fined Qualcomm a total of nearly $2 billion for unfair patent practices, and other competition investigations are in various stages around the world.
It shouldn’t have to come to this. Qualcomm, and all other companies who control SEPs, have a responsibility to share their technologies with other firms – for which they receive sizable royalties. It is to their advantage to do so.
All businesses, tech and otherwise, are going to benefit from the IoT – leading to greater consumer access and choice. The sooner IoT technologies are widely introduced and running, the better off we all will be.
The IoT is perhaps the most exciting prospect of our times and may one day be argued to be one of the greatest innovations in modern human history. For the benefit of consumers, everyone in the technology industry needs to work together to make it a reality.
This op-ed was featured in Forbes.