Operators Move Beyond Connectivity in the IoT Era as Asia Pulls Ahead

The Internet of Things is well on the way to transforming our lives – connecting devices across vast areas at low cost to make our working lives more productive, our cities smarter, and our travel safer and more efficient. Much of the growth in IoT – particularly in industrial contexts – will be led by Asia. Last month saw release of a new GSMA report on the latest major development in IoT, what has been called the Fourth Industrial Revolution: the convergence of IoT, big data analytics, ultrafast internet and AI with industrial processes. It found that China will lead the world in Industrial IoT, by leveraging returns from its enormous investments and economies of scale – of the 13.8 billion IIoT connections expected globally by 2025, almost a third will be found in China. “China is betting big on the IIoT to increase productivity and drive efficiencies by streamlining and automating manufacturing processes via internet connectivity. Backed by positive government support, China is set to become the world’s leader,” reflected GSMA Chief Technology Officer Alex Sinclair. The full report can be found here.

Global Mobile operators commit to common approach to IoT security
For this potential to be realised fully however, confidence in security must be paramount. We therefore welcomed an announcement at the Mobile World Congress in Shanghai last week that operators across Asia and beyond have committed to the GSMA’s IoT Security Guidelines, supported by the IoT Security Assessment.  “For the IoT to flourish, the industry needs an aligned and consistent approach to IoT security. Our guidelines encourage the industry to adopt a robust set of best practices that will help create a more secure IoT market with trusted, reliable services that can scale as the market grows,” explained Mr Sinclair. This agreement represents what we are delighted to note is a growing tendency among operators towards collaboration on matters of common interest. It is in pursuit of this deepening collaboration that the GSMA held its IoT Summit at the Mobile World Congress last Thursday, at which discussion of Mobile IoT dominated the afternoon session.

Enormous growth in Mobile IoT accelerates technological advancement in multiple industry verticals
Our operator panel on network performance and market opportunities in Mobile IoT returned some highly encouraging updates from work in progress across Asia. Head of IoT Innovation at Vodafone Lory Thorpe confirmed that, as rollout continues apace, Mobile IoT is meeting expectations – in terms of coverage, testing, and successful use cases. China Unicom’s Chen Xiaotian for instance reported enormous growth in transportation and logistics, as well as a rapidly expanding consumer market. He cautioned, however, that operators must not think if themselves only as the glue that holds services together via their networks. “In this era, if an operator is only providing connectivity, that’s just not enough. We need to go a step further and think about connectivity plus – we need to provide platforms, and the customer needs services from us.” Mr Xiaotian’s point echoes an increasingly common refrain heard across the industry, which urges operators to act less like utility companies in the era of IoT, and more like holistic service providers. “Many manufacturers of home air purifiers for example sell services to help customers manage air purification, as well as the filters themselves,” he explained; “we will increasingly need to play such a role in future.”

Chief among the enablers of these new roles will be data analytics. As KDDI’s General Manager of Industry Standards Departments Masaaki Koga pointed out on our next panel on realising the value of Mobile IoT, there are now many more business models for Mobile IoT than previously. What started with vending machines and logistics has become an array of commercial and industrial applications too numerous to count, and with them a proliferation of opportunities for operators to capitalise on the data generated as a result. “Previously we customised solutions customer by customer, but LTE-M enables platforms which allow multiple devices to be deployed and with them big data analytics.” Senior Consultant at FarEasTone Mike Lee supported this view, reflecting on his own professional experience using data to help civic authorities monitor air quality. As Director of the GSMA’s IoT Programme Svetlana Grant put it, “data is the main currency of the Internet of Things – and operators are busy working with customers to find the value propositions data can offer.”

LTE-M and NB-IoT are integral to 5G
There has been something of an increase in focus on LTE-M recently, with some operators previously more focussed on NB-IoT now making significant investments in its sister technology; one such operator is Vodafone, who confirmed on the panel that their provision of LTE-M in the region “is being worked on and will launch soon.” Similar indications were given by General Manager at China Telecom Zhao Jianjun who confirmed that LTE-M is in plan and currently being tested. While NB-IoT networks still outnumber LTE-M, deployment of the latter is picking up pace. Part of this may be growing recognition that it represents a truly long-term investment: KDDI’s Mr Koga reminded us that, contrary to a still common misconception, NB-IoT and LTE-M will form not an alternative to but “a part of 5G – these technologies are mature and long-lasting, and you do not need to wait for 5G.” We are pleased to see more widespread appreciation of the complementary relationship these technologies will enjoy.

With 53 Mobile IoT networks now in place, it is vital that we forge solutions to enable future ecosystem growth. Our final panel dealt explicitly with that challenge. “The technology is here but the ecosystem is quite fragmented – it’s very unlike the smartphone business,” explained CEO of Sequans Dr Georges Karam. “We need to make the market easy, and enable connectivity and make service seamless. If this happens, we can get the scale.” This sentiment was echoed by Senior Vice President for Mobile Services at Gemalto Sashidhar Thothadri, who urged integration of packages in what U-Blox’s Head of Strategic Partnerships Simon Glassman called “an inherently complex value chain.” As collaboration across the industry and communication with customers and verticals deepens, we look forward to seeing how service packages can be integrated with connectivity to ensure Mobile IoT’s continued growth.

You may also view the GSMA Internet of Things Guide to understand how the GSMA Internet of Things Programme is partnering with mobile network operators and key ecosystem partners in driving various IoT industry initiatives.