How the Internet of things could save the environment

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By 2020, there will be around 50 billion devices connected to a wireless network — and a huge chunk of those devices will be able to drastically reduce carbon emissions and environmental impact by virtue of being connected to the Internet, said telecom giant Ericsson’s chief executive Hans Vestberg.

That’s because having all those devices connected to a network will make it easier to run any number of aspects of life that have an impact on the environment more efficiently. That can range from power grids, to traffic or to fuel efficiency. The biggest opportunity lies in placing all those devices on a smart grid — a highly efficient power grid that uses advanced programs and wirelessly connected devices to distribute power without wasting it. Vestberg made the comments at the CTIA Wireless 2011 conference in Orlando, Fla.

“In the next 5 years, we expect two-thirds of all electronics will have some connectivity in them,” Vestberg said. “That means we can use a much more powerful grid in our society and reduce our impact on the environment drastically.”

There’s also a holistic opportunity to reduce the impact that other connected devices — such as vehicles — have on the environment, he said. One way would be to give drivers the ability to “download” more horsepower to their vehicles when they need it, like when they are going on a long trip or going up a hill. If they don’t require it, the car automatically restricts that horsepower — increasing fuel efficiency and reducing carbon emissions.

“We can increase safety and improve (carbon) emissions by steering cars and keep those wasteful habits in check,” he said. “That’s another industry that can benefit from what we have built.”

That’s quite a potential impact, too — the average American spends around 45 hours in a car each month, Vestberg said. There are also around 250 million registered vehicles in the United States, and many of them don’t meet emission standards and are not very environmentally friendly or fuel-efficient.

There’s a huge opportunity in expanding the “Internet of Things,” a short-hand way of describing a massive wireless network where most electronics and devices are connected to the Internet. For every tenth of a percent increase in broadband penetration across a country, it’s sustainable gross domestic product — a measure of a country’s output — increases by around 1 percent. Every 1,000 new broadband connections, whether they are mobile or fixed, also creates another 80 jobs, Vestberg said.

That means that there’s a huge untapped market in the United States alone. There are entire sections of rural America that don’t have access to broadband, and coverage is pretty weak in some parts of the country. Connecting all those remote and weakly covered areas would add another 10 million jobs in the United States — which is pretty significant given that the unemployment rate still remains high at 8.9 percent.

The wireless industry accounts for around 2 percent of all carbon emissions today, Vestberg said. There are around 1 billion mobile broadband users today, and that number should go up to around 5 billion broadband users by 2016, Vestberg said. Around 85 percent of the planet has mobile coverage, and it will reach around 90 percent in 5 years — with around 8 billion active mobile subscriptions, up from 5.3 billion mobile subscriptions today.

“For the ones good in math, there’s not that many people on the planet,” Vestberg said. “People are going to have several devices with so many different types of descriptions, and anything that benefits from being connected will be connected.”

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