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COVID-19 will drive IoT solutions for SMBs, but at what cost?

As businesses prepare to bring their employees back onsite, large and small vendors are pushing IoT-based products to help businesses track their employees for purposes of contact tracing, social distancing, and ensuring they don’t breach lowered occupancy limits. Businesses are also tapping connected products for monitoring the temperatures of both employees and clients who walk through their doors. And more forward-looking employers are seeking those products along with ways to actually test for COVID-19.

The challenge is that all of these things require new hardware (or repurposed existing hardware), new software, and new business processes. Thus, there are several partnerships forming with an eye to developing an all-in-one solution that companies can use to bring their employees back to the office. And several companies are joining forces to create combined solutions for attacking their customers’ COVID-related issues.

For me, the most interesting partnership is a startup called Covitech, which was created by developers from Art+Logic and health experts from Hudson Scientific. Covitech is all about testing. It will implement the basics of contact tracing inside the office and be able to conduct temperature checks, but its real differentiator is that it will also handle testing.

The company will offer an array of FDA-approved tests and ensure that each one is carried out properly. Employers will also be able to track the status of their hires using Covitech software, and to notify anyone who may have been exposed while on the job. Additionally, Covitech will source personal protective equipment, disinfectant, and other sanitizing supplies for small- and medium-sized businesses that can’t buy the gear on their own, or that are buying it in such small quantities that the gear becomes too expensive.

And thanks to the Hudson Scientific partnership, the materials provided by Covitech are guaranteed to perform; it will take on the liability associated with any claim resulting from their use. I imagine there will be a lot of opportunities to bring in additional IoT hardware to make Covitech’s offering even more compelling for those trying to ensure social distancing or specific occupancy levels.

On the more technical side, Cradlepoint, Rigado, and Microsoft are working together to offer a series of Bluetooth sensors for tracking employee social distancing along with occupancy and movement inside buildings. The sensors connect to the Rigado hub, and the data is sent back to Microsoft’s Azure over Cradlepoint’s LTE modems.

The idea is that a business can just enter into a website a few details about the number of employees it has and the features it wants, then receive a pre-packaged bundle of hardware that it can just plug in and use to start tracking. To help make it easy to deploy and keep it off the corporate network, the package of sensors uses cellular connectivity so it can truly be plug-and-play.

Using cellular is a pretty common strategy for any type of IoT solution aimed at small- and medium-sized businesses, for two reasons. The first is that cellular makes it easy to link the hardware, communications, and software together so that whoever is tasked with deploying it doesn’t need to have any technical expertise. The second is that the solution is air-gapped from the traditional corporate network, which means a business doesn’t need its security team to spend a long time reviewing it.

The downside is that a small business might buy one solution for COVID-19 tracking, another for pest control, and a third for monitoring its inventory. It might have some 20 different platforms, networks, and applications, all working in separate areas. So ease of deployment today may mean the use of some cumbersome ERP-style system a few years down the road, when the company wants to bring all that data together.

Generally speaking, COVID-19 is set to accelerate the adoption of connected tech and software by more businesses as they try to keep customers and workers safe. Having software and sensors perform the work that otherwise would have required multiple people on the front lines, or that simply never would have been possible, makes sense. Businesses need something simple to deploy and reliable to use. But I think they also deserve open platforms and ways that they can bring in new capabilities later.

I’d love to see someone pull together a solution that looks like that.