Exclusive Interview: Vodafone – Now for Something Completely Different

Now for Something Completely Different

The Vodafone Group R&D Director explains why the Mobile Internet of Things is about to expand dramatically


Luke Ibbetson, Vodafone Group R&D Director, Chair of GSMA NB-IoT Forum

luke-website-interviewThe Mobile Internet of Things (Mobile IoT) is approaching a tipping point. Luke Ibbetson, the global R&D head at Vodafone, says the mobile industry is on the brink of being able “to do something completely different” thanks to new capabilities that make it viable to connect a whole new category of equipment, devices and appliances.

Ibbetson says the widespread deployment of Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT), a newly-standardised technology, is about to fuel a lot of “invention and innovation.” Specifically designed to connect large numbers of battery-powered devices in previously inaccessible and remote locations, NB-IoT could have a wide range of applications in industry, agriculture and the consumer market.

“I am very excited about the bottom of the pyramid,” says Ibbetson, who is Chair of the GSMA NB-IoT Forum. “The low cost, long range sensor market […] there is a very long tail of applications and customers that we can now serve in a meaningful way. NB-IoT should be a compelling enabler for a host of different businesses.”

One of the major selling points of NB-IoT is that it can be overlaid on top of an existing 4G cellular network, keeping the cost of deployment down. Vodafone has estimated that 85% of its 4G base stations can be adapted to support NB-IoT through a straightforward software upgrade. “The business case for NB-IoT is strong,” says Ibbetson. “We already have the necessary towers buried in concrete with power and connectivity. You can gain this capability at low cost, so you should be able to build a business case out of that.”

Vodafone has been a vocal proponent of NB-IoT, working with equipment vendors to hone and test the technology. In September 2016, Vodafone announced it had completed “the first ever NB-IoT connection on commercial network equipment, paving the way for billions of devices to be connected at low cost with extremely low power requirements.”

In their trials of NB-IoT, Vodafone’s engineers have been particularly impressed with its ability to provide a signal in places traditional cellular networks can’t penetrate. “It just works. You get extremely reliable coverage and the tech has proven itself to be extremely resilient,” Ibbetson says. “In our trials, we have set out to find the most hostile environments, such as connecting a water meter in a basement five meters below ground or sensors beneath a manhole cover. That is extremely difficult for most radio technologies, but with NB-IoT you can provide coverage.” The ability of NB-IoT signals to penetrate walls and other barriers could be particularly important for smart city applications that require various pieces of municipal infrastructure, such as parking spaces, garbage disposal units, street lighting and energy meters, to be connected in dense urban areas.

A smart and secure home?

As well as enabling utilities, manufacturers, farmers, city administrations and other organisations to remotely monitor and control many more assets, NB-IoT could take on a major role in the consumer market. Today, anyone looking to turn their household into a smart home may find it hard to connect all their appliances and devices in a secure and reliable way. Ibbetson believes Vodafone’s NB-IoT capabilities will be able to help with that. “The smart home is a very good example of the diversity of the use cases that you can see,” he says. “There have been some very public instances of security breaches of connected things. One of the ways you can resolve that is by not connecting them locally. Instead you can put them on a managed and secure platform in the operator network. If we can get the connectivity delivered at the right cost, there is no reason why we shouldn’t connect individual sensors on each window, fire alarms, fridges, lighting, heating systems and many other assets. Instead of the head of the household needing to be a CIO, we can manage all these things.”

Mobile operators should also be able to provide consumers with other IoT solutions to help them track elderly relatives, their children and pets, as well as mobile assets, such as bicycles and portable appliances. On a November earnings call with analysts, Vittorio Colao, CEO of Vodafone, said that the group has decided to launch a “consumer IoT division” and “strengthen our data analytics unit across the piece.”

Different markets, different applications

With operations in both developed countries, such as Germany and Italy, and emerging markets, such as India and South Africa, Vodafone is pursuing a very wide range of use cases for IoT technologies. In emerging markets, agriculture is likely to be a particularly big customer for IoT solutions, which can be used to monitor soil quality, weather conditions and remotely control irrigation systems.  Although operators’ 4G infrastructure is currently far more extensive in developed markets than in emerging markets, Ibbetson notes that mobile operators may face less competition from major technology and internet companies in South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and other developing regions.

A key strength of NB-IoT is its versatility – it can be deployed in operators’ existing spectrum, standalone spectrum and even in the guard bands between frequencies serving other applications. “The way in which it has been standardised allows you to use it in many different markets,” says Ibbetson.

However, NB-IoT isn’t a silver bullet for the entire Internet of Things. There are many IoT applications, such as streaming high definition video to the passengers in the back of a luxury car, that will need to use a technology that can provide a higher throughput and lower latency than can be achieved with NB-IoT. Ibbetson says the industry has to be careful to resist “scope creep” for individual IoT technologies.  “We don’t want to complicate NB-IoT,” he stresses. “If you try to make NB-IoT low latency, you add cost and complexity, and reduce battery life. The proprietary technologies catalysed the market by being ruthlessly simple and doing one thing well. We also need to do that with NB-IoT.”

For mobile operators, a key question is how much value they can add to IoT solutions beyond connectivity. To help it answer that question, Vodafone has developed a global IoT platform that enables it to easily provision IoT connections. Now covering 31 countries, the platform is designed to be a single control point for IoT connections worldwide, so Vodafone’s enterprise customers can activate, suspend and deactivate SIMs at the click of a button. Whereas enterprises traditionally have had to develop their own customised IoT solution, Ibbetson says they now have a choice. “They no longer need to do individual expensive bespoke development,” he adds. “Instead, they can use our APIs to connect into our web platform.” In this way, enterprise customers should be able to benefit from the economies of scale available to Vodafone.

A fast-growing business

By the end of September 2016, Vodafone had more than 45 million IoT connections, up 38% year-on-year. Moreover, IoT revenue was up 17% year-on-year to €355 million for the six months to 30 September.  Vodafone’s IoT division employs a variety of business models. In some cases, it provides solutions directly to end-users. In others, it provides enablers to allow an enterprise to create a B2B2C (business-to-business-to-consumer) proposition for consumers.

The rate of growth of Mobile IoT could be governed by the speed at which the operator community rallies around standardised technologies, such as NB-IoT, giving equipment and silicon makers the confidence to invest and build economies of scale. Ibbetson says the industry is too fragmented right now “with people using proprietary technologies in shared unlicensed spectrum.” He notes that such technologies are vulnerable to interference, meaning that if they become popular, they could also become unsustainable. “When it comes to contract signing time, you couldn’t give them any guarantees that the service will function for 10 years,” he notes.

As Mobile IoT technologies are designed for use in licensed spectrum, operators can ensure that the signals aren’t degraded by interference. Moreover, the standardisation process should ensure that these technologies work in a consistent way across the globe, enabling service providers, developers and enterprises to reuse software and solutions in different markets. To that end, Vodafone is looking for the broader mobile industry to speed up the roll-out of NB-IoT.

As NB-IoT is beginning to be rolled out commercially, it is entering a pivotal stage in its development. “The next six months will be critical, as we see the first scale deployments going live,” notes Ibbetson. “We need the right volume of chipsets and modules.” But he is confident that a strong ecosystem will emerge as the industry realises that NB-IoT is real and can support many applications that are not easily delivered with any other technology.