The internet of things: the importance of staying connected

This article originally appeared on The Guardian by Holly Brockwell.

Have you ever had to wait for a much-needed cup of tea because your mug needed an update first? During the interminable minutes while said update downloads, installs, and reboots itself, you have plenty of time to think about what our future homes will look like.

Like it or not, most people’s houses are already full of internet-connected devices, and the number is only going to rise. In a few years, your washing machine will talk to your air quality sensor to find out the weather, then automatically switch on the drying cycle because it’s raining outside, before WhatsApping you to let you know your clothes are ready (and you just know it’ll use a load of emojis because some guy in the marketing office thought it was cool).

The internet of things (IoT) is pretty good for all of us when it works. It means your devices can talk to each other – and you – to keep your home running just the way you like it. Until the wifi goes down, at which point you wonder what was so wrong with good old-fashioned light switches while you sit in the dark.

As our knick-knacks get ever more connected, stable wifi is going to become as important as electricity. But while power cuts are blessedly rare, wifi outages are much more common, and we even put up with parts of our homes having no signal. Can you imagine saying: “Oh sorry, that room doesn’t have electricity”? So why is it OK when it comes to wifi?

According to research, there are already more connected things than people in the world. Research company Gartner states that around 8.4bn IoT devices were in use in 2017, up 31% from 2016, and this will likely reach 20.4bn by 2020. In other words, we have a lot more things guzzling the wifi than we presume. Think about it: smart TVs, games consoles, connected heating and lighting, voice-activated speakers, that weird digital photo thing your mum bought you – and that’s before all the obvious stuff such as smartphones and laptops.

Neil Illingworth, head of innovation at Virgin Media, reckons things can only get smarter. “Our homes are filling with more and more connected devices such as smart lightbulbs, thermostats, speakers, smoke alarms, movement sensors, vacuum cleaners, and a whole lot more in the near future.”

Of course, every internet-connected device is another thing that won’t work if the wifi fails, as Illingworth explains: “It’s not just humans who enjoy good wifi speeds, our devices like them, too.” It’s bad enough having to call a locksmith, but ignoring the peals of laughter down the phone when you try to explain you’re locked out because the wifi is down isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time.

One upside of the rampant technological progress we’re experiencing at the moment, though, is Intelligent WiFi. Rather than requiring technical knowhow or multiple phone calls, Virgin Media’s new product is a home wifi network that fixes itself.

Combining the Hub 3 router, Virgin Media Connect app and artificial intelligence of the non-scary type, Intelligent WiFi constantly scans your home internet to find areas with interference, and frequencies that your devices are connected to. Whenever it finds something that’s less than perfect, it automatically adjusts the settings to bring it up to speed – literally.

While you won’t be interrupted by the daily tweaks Intelligent WiFi makes to your network, you’ll definitely notice the overall effect: a smart home running smoothly. So this means we’re on the road to the end of weak signals and blackspots around the home, inexplicitly slow loading times, or greedy devices hogging all the data.

Intelligent WiFi oversees every last gizmo, making sure they not only get the signal they need, but that no device is left behind. You can even go in to the Connect app and see all the devices using the wifi, and pause individual gadgets if you want to – such as when the kids are playing Xbox when they’re supposed to be doing homework.

While you’re in the Connect app, you can also easily share your wifi details with friends who’ve come over for a cuppa and a chat. Do make sure you have a few non-smart mugs in the house, though – just in case of an apocalypse …