It’s reasonably clear that standard cellular networks will only carry a fraction of the data of the Internet of Things (IoT), but how should telcos be involved in the fast growing range of low cost, disruptive networks that will carry the bulk? We examine the alternatives and outline strategic options.
5G, WiFi, GPRS, NB-IoT, LTE-M & LTE Categories 1 & 0, SigFox, Bluetooth, LoRa, Weightless-N & Weightless-P, ZigBee, EC-GSM, Ingenu, Z-Wave, Nwave, various satellite standards, optical/laser connections and more….. the list of current or proposed wireless network technologies for the “Internet of Things” seems to be growing longer by the day. Some are long-range, some short. Some high power/bandwidth, some low. Some are standardised, some proprietary. And while most devices will have some form of wireless connection, there are certain categories that will use fibre or other fixed-network interfaces.
There is no “one-size fits all”, although some hope that 5G will ultimately become an “umbrella” for many of them, in the 2020 time-frame and beyond. But telcos, especially mobile operators, need to consider which they will support in the shorter-term horizon, and for which M2M/IoT use-cases. That universe is itself expanding too, with new IoT products and systems being conceived daily, spanning everything from hobbyists’ drones to industrial robots. All require some sort of connectivity, but the range of costs, data capabilities and robustness varies hugely.
Two over-riding question themes emerge:
- What are the business cases for deploying IoT-centric networks – and are they dependent on offering higher-level management or vertical solutions as well? Is offering connectivity – even at very low prices/margins – essential for telcos to ensure relevance and differentiate against IoT market participants?
- What are the longer-term strategic issues around telcos supporting and deploying proprietary or non-3GPP networking technologies? Is the diversity a sensible way to address short-term IoT opportunities, or does it risk further undermining the future primacy of telco-centric standards and business models? Either way telcos need to decide how much energy they wish to expend, before they embrace the inevitability of alternative competing networks in this space.
This report specifically covers IoT-centric network connectivity. It fits into Telco 2.0’s Future of the Network research stream, and also intersects with our other ongoing work on IoT/M2M applications, including verticals such as the connected car, connected home and smart cities. It focuses primarily on new network types, rather than marketing/bundling approaches for existing services.
The Executive Briefing report “IoT – Impact on M2M, Endgame and Implications” from March 2015 outlined three strategic areas of M2M business model innovation for telcos:
- Improve existing M2M operations: Dedicated M2M business units structured around priority verticals with dedicated resources. Such units allow telcos to tailor their business approach and avoid being constrained by traditional strategies that are better suited to mobile handset offerings.
- Move into new areas of M2M: Expansion along the value chain through both acquisitions and partnerships, and the formation of M2M operator ‘alliances.’
- Explore the Internet of Things: Many telcos have been active in the connected home e.g. AT&T Digital Life. However, outsiders are raising the connected home (and IoT) opportunity stakes: Google, for example, acquired Nest for $3.2 billion in 2014.
Figure 2: The M2M Value Chain
Source: STL Partners, More With Mobile
In the 9 months since that report was published, a number of important trends have occurred in the M2M / IoT space:
- A growing focus on the value of the “industrial Internet”, where sensors and actuators are embedded into offices, factories, agriculture, vehicles, cities and other locations. New use-cases and applications abound on both near- and far-term horizons.
- A polarisation in discussion between ultra-fast/critical IoT (e.g. for vehicle-to-vehicle control) vs. low-power/cost IoT (e.g. distributed environmental sensors with 10-year battery life). 2015 discussion of IoT connectivity has been dominated by futuristic visions of 5G, or faster-than-expected deployment of LPWANs (low-power wide-area networks), especially based on new platforms such as SigFox or LoRa Alliance.
- Comparatively slow emergence of dedicated individual connections for consumer IoT devices such as watches / wearables. With the exception of connected cars, most mainstream products connect via local “capillary” networks (e.g. Bluetooth and WiFi) to smartphones or home gateways acting as hubs, or a variety of corporate network platforms. The arrival of embedded SIMs might eventually lead to more individually-connected devices, but this has not materialised in volume yet.
- Continued entry, investment and evolution of a broad range of major companies and start-ups, often with vastly different goals, incumbencies and competencies to telcos. Google, IBM, Cisco, GE, Intel, utility firms, vehicle suppliers and 1000s of others are trying to carve out roles in the value chain.
- Growing impatience among some in the telecom industry with the pace of standardisation for some IoT-centric developments. A number of operators have looked outside the traditional cellular industry suppliers and technologies, eager to capitalise on short-term growth especially in LPWAN and in-building local connectivity. In response, vendors including Huawei, Ericsson and Qualcomm have stepped up their pace, although fully-standardised solutions are still some way off.
Connectivity in the wider M2M/IoT context
It is not always clear what the difference is between M2M and IoT, especially at a connectivity level. They now tend to be used synonymously, although the latter is definitely newer and “cooler”. Various vendors have their own spin on this – Cisco’s “Internet of Everything”, and Ericsson’s “Networked Society”, for example. It is also a little unclear where the IoT part ends, and the equally vague term “networked services” begins. It is also important to recognise that a sizeable part of the future IoT technology universe will not be based on “services” at all, although “user-owned” devices and systems are much harder for telcos to monetise.
An example might be a government encouraging adoption of electric vehicles. Cars and charging points are “things” which require data connections. At one level, an IoT application may simply guide drivers to their closest available power-source, but a higher-level “societal” application will collate data from both the IoT network and other sources. Thus data might also flow from bus and train networks, as well as traffic sensors, pollution monitors and even fitness trackers for walking and cycling, to see overall shifts in transport habits and help “nudge” commuters’ behaviour through pricing or other measures. In that context, the precise networks used to connect to the end-points become obscured in the other layers of software and service – although they remain essential building blocks.
Figure 3: Characterising the difference between M2M and IoT across six domains
Source: STL Partners, More With Mobile
(Note: the Future of Network research stream generally avoids using vague and loaded terms like “digital” and “OTT”. While concise, we believe they are often used in ways that guide readers’ thinking in wrong or unhelpful directions. Words and analogies are important: they can lead or mislead, often sub-consciously).
Often, it seems that the word “digital” is just a convenient cover, to avoid admitting that a lot of services are based on the Internet and provided over generic data connections. But there is more to it than that. Some “digital services” are distinctly non-Internet in nature (for example, if delivered “on-net” from set-top boxes). New IoT and M2M propositions may never involve any interaction with the web as we know it. Some may actually involve analogue technology as well as digital. Hybrids where apps use some telco network-delivered ingredients (via APIs), such as identity or one-time SMS passwords are becoming important.
Figure 4: ‘Digital’ and IoT convergence
Source: STL Partners, More With Mobile
We will also likely see many hybrid solutions emerging, for example where dedicated devices are combined with smartphones/PCs for particular functions. Thus a “digital home” service may link alarms, heating sensors, power meters and other connections via a central hub/console – but also send alerts and data to a smartphone app. It is already quite common for consumer/business drones to be controlled via a smartphone or tablet.
In terms of connectivity, it is also worth noting that “M2M” generally just refers to the use of conventional cellular modems and networks – especially 2G/3G. IoT expands this considerably – as well as future 5G networks and technologies being specifically designed with new use-cases in mind, we are also seeing the emergence of a huge range of dedicated 4G variants, plus new purpose-designed LPWAN platforms. IoT also intersects with the growing range of local/capillary network technologies – which are often overlooked in conventional discussions about M2M.
Figure 5: Selected Internet of Things service areas
Source: STL Partners
The larger the number…
…the less relevance and meaning it has. We often hear of an emerging world of 20bn, 50bn, even trillions of devices being “networked”. While making for good headlines and press-releases, such numbers can be distracting.
While we will definitely be living in a transformed world, with electronics around us all the time – sensors, displays, microphones and so on – that does not easily translate into opportunities for telecom operators. The correct role for such data and forecasts is in the context of a particular addressable opportunity – otherwise one risks counting toasters, alongside sensors in nuclear power stations. As such, this report does not attempt to compete in counting “things” with other analyst firms, although references are made to approximate volumes.
For example, consider a typical large, modern building. It’s common to have temperature sensors, CCTV cameras, alarms for fire and intrusion, access control, ventilation, elevators and so forth. There will be an internal phone system, probably LAN ports at desks and WiFi throughout. In future it may have environmental sensors, smart electricity systems, charging points for electric vehicles, digital advertising boards and more. Yet the main impact on the telecom industry is just a larger Internet connection, and perhaps some dedicated lines for safety-critical systems like the fire alarm. There may well be 1,000 or 10,000 connected “things”, and yet for a cellular operator the building is more likely to be a future driver of cost (e.g. for in-building radio coverage for occupants’ phones) rather than extra IoT revenue. Few of the building’s new “things” will have SIM cards and service-based radio connections in any case – most will link into the fixed infrastructure in some way.
One also has to doubt some of the predicted numbers – there is considerable vagueness and hand-waving inherent in the forecasts. If a car in 2020 has 10 smart sub-systems, and 100 sensors reporting data, does that count as 1, 10 or 100 “things” connected? Is the key criterion that smart appliances in a connected home are bought individually – and therefore might be equipped with individual wide-area network connections? When such data points are then multiplied-up to give traffic forecasts, there are multiple layers of possible mathematical error.
This highlights the IoT quantification dilemma – everyone focuses on the big numbers, many of which are simple spreadsheet extrapolations, made without much consideration of the individual use-cases. And the larger the headline number, the less-likely the individual end-points will be directly addressed by telcos.
- Executive Summary
- Connectivity in the wider M2M/IoT context
- The larger the number…
- The IoT network technology landscape
- Overview – it’s not all cellular
- The emergence of LPWANs & telcos’ involvement
- The capillarity paradox: ARPU vs. addressability
- Where does WiFi fit?
- What will the impact of 5G be?
- Other technology considerations
- Strategic considerations
- Can telcos compete in IoT without connectivity?
- Investment vs. service offer
- Regulatory considerations
- Are 3GPP technologies being undermined?
- Risks & threats
- Figure 1: Telcos can only fully monetise “things” they can identify uniquely
- Figure 2: The M2M Value Chain
- Figure 3: Characterising the difference between M2M and IoT across six domains
- Figure 4: ‘Digital’ and IoT convergence
- Figure 5: Selected Internet of Things service areas
- Figure 6: Cellular M2M is growing, but only a fraction of IoT overall
- Figure 7: Wide-area IoT-related wireless technologies
- Figure 8: Selected telco involvement with LPWAN
- Figure 9: Telcos need to consider capillary networks pragmatically
- Figure 10: Major telco types mapped to relevant IoT network strategies