There are two battling initiatives about to emerge in the IoT market. On the enterprise side, we have a largely Cisco-led initiative that attempts to take power over ethernet (PoE) and make it universal. On the other side, we have a blend of vendors like Qualcomm and Ossia that promise to eliminate the wires entirely and allow us to simply place IoT devices in range of data and power broadcasting capabilities without the need to pull wires at all.
Let’s talk about the advantages and disadvantages of each approach.
Power over ethernet (PoE) has been around for some time. It is commonly used when designing a smart office because it simplifies not only the initial build of the office but any subsequent upgrade the office might go through. In addition, if done right, it can be far less expensive in terms of electricity use than the more common three-prong electrical plug and either wired or wireless networking.
It is DC rather than AC, making it safer from the standpoint of shock risk. Because most desktop peripherals are DC in nature and waste power through inefficient dedicated transformers, it can provide a more efficient solution than we currently have at the desktop if provisioned properly.
Because one cable has both power and networking, it does force conduit use for wiring, but that makes it far easier to reprovision or update an office because you typically don’t have to open the walls up needlessly and you can more easily use interior designs where the walls are not fixed in the first place and allow the power to flow under the floors or over the ceiling, conduit free.
You do need to think about the use of electricians in some areas as, typically, the wiring is done by technicians, but local unions may take exception to this if the technicians aren’t unionized in areas where unions have a significant presence.
Shortcomings are that there are limits to how much power a PoE implementation can pull. Heavy appliances, HVAC systems, and localized resistive heaters will likely require more traditional AC power. One big advantage over wireless is security because you aren’t broadcasting the data, making it much harder to intercept or compromise the data stream. On the other hand, just cutting the cable can disconnect the device which could be a concern for some security camera implementations.
Going totally wireless is much newer than PoE and less well cooked now. We don’t yet even have a single large supplier for the technology, making any solution far more home grown than we’d typically like it to be. The promise, and this appears to be particularly useful in robotic and automotive implementations, is that when putting in a lot of sensors, including cameras, you just need to have them in range of the power and data sources for them to work. This makes the related IoT sensors much easier to install, replace, and potentially manage than their wired alternatives.
Power availability is both range- and capacity-limited. In most cases we are talking inches and feet in terms of range, making Nikola Tesla’s vision of powering a city wirelessly still well off in the future but making the concept of powering a city’s sensors wirelessly a far more likely near-term solution.
Currently, this approach is best used for sensors that have modest power requirements or that are supplemented with some kind of additional wireless power technology, like batteries and solar technology, just as, at full power, we only have enough juice using the Ossia solution to power a smartphone but not power and charge it. Cameras can be powered (but not if they are on 24/7) only to keep their batteries topped off as they selectively recorded individual incidents, like when a motion sensor triggers a recording event.
Finally, these two technologies aren’t mutually exclusive, and you could use PoE to get the power close to your device, then use a dedicated, secure, low-powered wireless network access point and the power transmitter to power the device itself, effectively getting the best of both worlds.
How we network and power our wireless IoT devices is in flux. We have two camps that aren’t mutually exclusive pitching PoE and a fully wireless implementation. While PoE is well known and has been in use to power wireless network access points, smart lighting and smart offices, it is moving to IoT sensors and provides clear advantages in terms of electrical safety, ease of use and energy savings. Wireless capabilities are well known on the networking side but wireless power is still in its infancy and very limited in terms of range and the amount of power that can be delivered, and we still don’t have a single vendor doing both.
But what I find most interesting is that rather than competing, these two approaches together make for a compelling argument. The only problem is that anyone that decides to do this will largely be plowing new ground, but they could end up well ahead of the technology curve and be better prepared for the massive changes to come.
About the author: As President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, Rob Enderle provides regional and global companies with guidance in how to create credible dialogue with the market, target customer needs, create new business opportunities, anticipate technology changes, select vendors and products, and practice zero dollar marketing. For over 20 years Rob has worked for and with companies like Microsoft, HP, IBM, Dell, Toshiba, Gateway, Sony, USAA, Texas Instruments, AMD, Intel, Credit Suisse First Boston, ROLM, and Siemens.