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United Nations sends peacekeeping forces to Internet of Things war

New ITU study group hopes to make sense of cluttered, confusing world

The United Nations is joining the melee for a single "internet of things" (IoT) standard.

The UN-run International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has created a new "study group" that will develop international standards for the technology to enable low-power communications between machines and sensor networks.

Study Group 20 will be officially called "IoT and its applications, including smart cities and communities," and will focus first on "standards that leverage IoT technologies to address urban-development challenges." It hopes to come up with a full end-to-end architecture for IoT, and so allow for full interoperability of both applications and datasets.

Even with the weight of the United Nations behind it, the ITU faces an uphill battle. At the moment, IoT is almost defined by the fact that there are a wide range of competing standards.

Some are already ubiquitous, though sometimes not best suited, such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Others have been developed with low-power ubiquitous sensors in mind: ZigBee and Z-Wave. But then both Apple and Google have recently entered the market, trying to push their standards that would allow multiple devices to communicate directly with one another.

Apple has HomeKit, which it plans to incorporate into its phones and tablets, but the standard has already stumbled after the company decided that every IoT product would have to include Apple's firmware to carry out authentication and encryption.

Meanwhile, Google is trying to cover the market with two new standards and an IoT operating system. Brillo is a cut-down version of Android, whereas Thread is Google's answer to ZigBee/Z-Wave, and Weave is Google's answer to Apple's HomeKit.

And the rest...

As well as these, there are a number of other standards. Veteran smart-home company Insteon uses its own standards. And even modern, all-embracing smart-tech companies like Ecobee use some proprietary standards (in this case between its temperature sensors and its smart thermostat).

In short, the whole thing is a confusing mess with many large companies fighting on different sides to grab what they believe will become a huge market in the next five years. And so enter the ITU.

"Building smart sustainable cities will require efficient collaboration between the public and private sectors,” said ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao.

"This new ITU-T Study Group will bring together a diverse selection of stakeholders, placing ITU’s technical expertise at the service of other industry sectors as well as the national and metropolitan administrations responsible for urban development."

The ITU study group will be part of its ITU-T bureau. Director of the ITU-T, Chaesub Lee, unsurprisingly pushed its effort: "ITU-T is very active in IoT standardization, and we aim to assist cities around the world in creating the conditions necessary for IoT technologies to prove their worth in addressing urban-development challenges."

The fact that both Zhao and Lee stressed "cities" is a good indication that neither think the cluttered home market is the place to focus their energies at the moment.

The ITU does have some solid history in developing ICT standards. For example, it has published the standards for the JPEG file compression format, MPEG video standard, PKI security standard, and DSL broadband standard, among many others.

It has also been far less successful in its efforts to define internet and mobile phone standards – typically handled by the IETF and ETSI, respectively. ®

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