Operators look Beyond Connectivity in the Age of IoT

As the IoT expands and develops, operators are expanding their commercial horizons dramatically. Operators are now moving to meet demand beyond that for connectivity alone: there is a growing need for some kind of ringmaster to provide and manage connected services holistically, and operators are the increasingly obvious candidate. There is now therefore greatly increasing value available to operators across vertical industries, which will be a key driver behind scaling of the IoT.  This took up much of the discussion at the GSMA’s IoT Conference at the Mobile World Congress in Los Angeles last week; how can the industry collaborate to make something as complex, diffuse and rapidly developing as the IoT economically viable for all concerned?
CEO of Synchronoss Glenn Lurie made plain his satisfaction at the success in evidence already. “The ecosystem is coming together at the right time,” he noted, adding that collaboration can only improve IoT user experiences for the future; “I’d love to see an umbrella that brings it all together. Customers want one way to manage their home, car, office – one single concept that makes it easy to manage your own life. That when we will get to a stage where it’s really making people’s lives better on a grand scale.” A presentation on the IoT landscape by Jan Geldmacher, President of Sprint Business, underscored how vital that cooperation will be. “True scale requires an IoT ecosystem, and that needs to be built up with our support,” Mr Geldmacher explained. “Data is nothing without intelligence – you need AI to support the data that makes these services possible, and no one can deliver that by themselves. For that, you need an ecosystem.”
While there remains much to do, that work is thankfully well under way, and is achieving improvements to people’s lives in profound ways.  Ericsson’s Jawad Mansour outlined some Critical IoT use cases already in operation, including remote diagnoses and ambulance monitoring at King’s College London, which is making use of the mobile low latency and high-definition feed operators are now enabling to allow doctors to operate remotely, massively boosting the efficiency of their work. Intel, too, have devised a new patient monitoring solution called Sick Bay, which allows data to be transmitted seamlessly from a patient’s bedside at Children’s hospital to doctors worldwide, enabled by AI.
Much of the IoT’s growth will hinge on Low Power, Wide Area networks in licensed spectrum: LTE-M and NB-IoT, the family of technologies known collectively as Mobile IoT.  “By the time of the next Mobile World Congress in Barcelona we can expect LPWA networks to be available to 95% of total IoT subscribers,” observed the GSMA’s Head of IoT Graham Trickey. The classic concerns around developing ecosystems are, gratifyingly, showing clear signs of resolution in the case of Mobile IoT. As Sequans’ CEO Georges Karam pointed out, “a year or two ago you might find different operators arguing which of LTE-M or NB-IoT was better; now there is convergence around how the two can serve different purposes, with operators across Europe, China and the US announcing plans for both. What matters is the use case.” And Mobile IoT is enabling an increasingly intriguing array of use cases. One recent example saw representation at the conference, with the Bee Corp Ellie Symes present to outline the case of connected beehives, which are now in use to track the health, status and location of honeybees used to pollinate food crops. “We previously used a mesh network, but we realised it was just one more thing that could break, and it became more cost-effective for us to use cellular,” explained Ms Symes.
While these reflections on the ongoing maturity of Mobile IoT is encouraging, we ought not to minimise the challenges which remain.  GM at Cisco, Kishen Mangat, cautioned that fragmentation will continue for a while – particularly as emerging markets need time to assess which devices are available in their regions, and then build solutions around those with what connectivity they are able to build. “If you think about the last five years building 4G, you had a market dominated by consumers and a homogeneous network architecture. IoT is clearly more fragmented than that: you need the right set of building blocks to build solutions, the chips, the analytics capabilities, a flexible network.” Mr Karam agreed that the picture is now more complex, and that will take some careful forward thinking. “The mobile ecosystem was pretty simple before, you had maybe three people around the table; now in IoT it’s more like six or seven, and no one of them knows entirely what the other does. The big challenge is going to be how much operators will change their business from traditional carrier models, but they do seem to be taking that seriously and many have real plans to go in this direction.”
It’s a particularly interesting time to be working in this industry – as operators shift their sights from enablers of connected services to those who deliver, manage, and even in some cases design those services, their activities are becoming strikingly more diverse. This will of course bring challenges of its own, as operators need increasingly to diversify the skillsets they target and the associated risks of juggling multiple operations. If the last decade has proved one thing, though, it is the resilience and ingenuity of the people who make this industry the font of innovation which it is. The signs indicate that operators both relish the challenge of delivering more complex offerings to their customers, and recognise the importance of doing so – and, crucially, are already enjoying great success.