The global demand for seamless connectivity is skyrocketing. Having a reliable internet connection has become crucial, not just for general use but also for connecting satellites, IoT devices, and other everyday technologies. In 2023, global spending on IoT devices and networks was at $805.7 billion, with the Asia Pacific region having the largest share. Satellite IoT services alone are expected to be a $2.9 billion market by 2029, more than double its 2022 figures.

However, even in developed economies, traditional telecommunications infrastructure can barely keep up with the pace of growth. For example, the US Federal Communications Commission has opened an inquiry into several massive cellular outages across the country that occurred in recent years.

In emerging markets – particularly those in Asia – these connectivity gaps can stunt development and progress. “Until recently, the market struggled with persistent market gaps due to commercially unviable geographies,” wrote Jonathan Brewer in an Asian Development Bank whitepaper. “There were places that even for service providers targeting wealthy individuals or corporations in Western markets it was not reasonable to offer commercial telecommunications services.”

The challenge with legacy systems

Emerging technologies such as self-driving cars, remote healthcare facilities, and smart cities now necessitate always-on connectivity, particularly with the amount of constant data these require to function properly. Significant investment is expected to support this, “Telcos are projected to invest $342.1 billion in their networks in 2027 alone,” a PwC analysis has forecast.

In addition, legacy infrastructure is often faced with challenges in catching up to these needs, being vulnerable to cyberattacks, and other challenges that come with centralized control and management. “The challenges faced by the industry are related to power supply, progressing architecture, IoT complexities, privacy, and enabling complex sensing circumstances,” writes Amit Dua on Data Science Central.

There are also logistical challenges in overhauling legacy systems. For example, in dense urban areas, it may be costly and complex to acquire the right of way, navigate complex regulatory structures, and minimize disruption to business and residential use. These considerations make upgrades significantly costly and time-consuming. It also leaves communities at risk of getting left behind in a widening digital divide.

DePIN as a new paradigm

In these scenarios, a decentralized physical infrastructure network (DePIN) would be a viable alternative to legacy connectivity systems. Unlike the traditional top-down approach of telecom infrastructure, DePINs are composed of numerous, smaller, and distributed antennas and devices. These can be often owned and operated by independent businesses and individuals, which can create a vast and interconnected network.

This distributed nature makes it highly scalable, as a DePIN can expand organically as more users join to add nodes. This mitigates the limitations brought about by centralized planning and large-scale construction needed for legacy networks. With no single point of failure, DePINs are also more resistant to outages. A disruption in one area or even a few will not be likely to disrupt the entire network.

DePINs can also leverage existing resources, such as households, business spaces, and common areas, which can significantly reduce the need for costly purpose-built infrastructure like towers and fiber optic lines.

“We’ve already seen some hype around DePIN in the media, with investors now paying close attention to developments in this area,” says Tim Kravchunovsky, CEO of decentralized telecommunications network Chirp. He added that technology startups that utilize decentralized IoT networks greatly benefit from the scalability and potential for expanded business use cases.

“Scooters for rent or car sharing are perfect examples of how DePIN benefits the community. All of these devices need a network to communicate. The popularity of IoT and DePIN is just getting started, and autonomous cars and smart cities will bring even more need for connectivity,” he added.

Unifying a fragmented communications landscape

For a fully-featured and unified DePIN network to be sustainable, there needs to be incentives for users to participate as nodes. This is where Web3 technologies come into play. In the case of Chirp and its Blackbird antennas, which act as gateways to the DePIN network, users earn rewards in digital tokens. The community network of Blackbird gateways provides long-range IoT coverage across 215 cities and 33 countries.

This focus on IoT connectivity, for instance, has brought about partnerships with companies like XMAQUINA, a network of autonomous robot cafes. Future projects and use cases will involve broader mobile connectivity applications, which will essentially unify an IoT landscape that is currently mired in fragmentation.

As homes become smarter and growing cities become smartly connected, one major challenge is fragmentation. “Simply put, IoT devices from one manufacturer will unlikely be able to work with devices from another manufacturer,” writes electronics engineer Robin Mitchell. “As such, trying to create a smart home using multiple manufacturers is virtually impossible.”

With numerous IoT device vendors worldwide, consumers and businesses often encounter a fragmented array of IoT devices from different manufacturers, necessitating the use of various apps and hardware that must be individually assembled. This issue is resolved by IoT networks that support multiprotocol communication standards like Chirp, enabling devices from different manufacturers to operate within a single Chirp ecosystem, thereby streamlining the user experience.

DePINs and the future of connectivity

Decentralized networks are nothing new, as evidenced by the presence of protocols like LoRa and even simple consumer-driven communication apps like GoTenna and FireChat, which users have been using for simple off-grid and meshed chatting. However, new innovations in decentralized networks are making these more logistically viable and economically sustainable.

DePINs can have a significant impact whether in underserved communities, emerging markets, and highly-saturated environments. Their decentralized nature makes these networks well-suited to reach areas where traditional infrastructures may be limited and also ensure sustainable connectivity in those areas that are experiencing significant growth in IoT use cases.

With DePINs, users are not just consumers but are also network operators. With such potential to contribute to the growth of sustainable IoT networks, DePINs could be the key to narrowing the digital divide and supporting the growth of smart cities worldwide.

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