How telcos can make the world a safer place

Telecoms networks can support public safety

In the wake of the pandemic and multiple natural disasters, such as fire and flooding, both policymakers and people in general are placing a greater focus on preserving health and ensuring public safety. This report begins by explaining the concept of a digital nervous system – large numbers of connected sensors that can monitor events in real-time and thereby alert organizations and individuals to imminent threats to their health and safety.

With the advent of 5G, STL Partners believes telcos have a broad opportunity to help coordinate better use of the world’s resources and assets, as outlined in the report: The Coordination Age: A third age of telecoms. The application of reliable and ubiquitous connectivity to enable governments, companies and individuals to live in a safer world is one way in which operators can contribute to the Coordination Age.

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The chapters in this report consider the potential to use the data collected by telecoms networks to help counter the health and safety threats posed by:

  • Environmental factors, such as air pollution and high-levels of pollen,
  • Natural disasters, such as wildfires, flooding and earthquakes,
  • Infectious diseases
  • Violence, such as riots and shooting incidents
  • Accidents on roads, rivers and coastlines

In each case, the report considers how to harness new data collected by connected sensors, cameras and other monitors, in addition to data already captured by mobile networks (showing where people are and where they are moving to).  It also identifies who telcos will need to work with to develop and deploy such solutions, while discussing potential revenue streams.  In most cases, the report includes short case studies describing how telcos are trialling or deploying actual solutions, generally in partnership with other stakeholders.

The final chapter focuses on the role of telcos – the assets and the capabilities they have to improve health and safety.

It builds on previous STL Partners research including:

Managing an unstable world

Prior to the damage wrought by the pandemic, the world was gradually becoming a safer place for human beings. Global life expectancy has been rising steadily for many decades and the UN expects that trend to continue, albeit at a slower pace. That implies the world is safer than it was in the twentieth century and people are healthier than they used to be.

Global gains in life expectancy are slowing down

health and safety

Source: United Nations – World Population Prospects

But a succession of pandemics, more extreme weather events and rising pollution may yet reverse these positive trends. Indeed, many people now feel that they live in an increasingly unstable and dangerous world. Air pollution and over-crowding are worsening the health impact of respiratory conditions and infections, such as SARS-CoV-2. As climate change accelerates, experts expect an increase in flash flooding, wildfires, drought and intense heat. As extreme weather impacts the food and water supplies, civil unrest and even armed conflict could follow. In the modern world, the four horsemen of the apocalypse might symbolize infectious disease, extreme weather, pollution and violence.

As the human race grapples with these challenges, there is growing interest in services and technologies that could make the world a safer and healthier place. That demand is apparent among both individuals (hence the strong sales of wearable fitness monitors) and among public sector bodies’ rising interest in environment and crowd monitoring solutions.

As prevention is better than cure, both citizens and organisations are looking for early warning systems that can help them prepare for threats and take mitigating actions. For example, an individual with an underlying health condition could benefit from a service that warns them when they are approaching an area with poor air quality or large numbers of densely-packed people. Similarly, a municipality would welcome a solution that alerts them when large numbers of people are gathering in a public space or drains are close to being blocked or are overflowing.  The development of these kinds of early warning systems would involve tracking both events and people in real-time to detect patterns that signal a potential hazard or disruption, such as a riot or flooding.

Advances in artificial intelligence (AI), as well as the falling cost of cameras and other sensors, together with the rollout of increasingly dense telecoms networks, could make such systems viable. For example, a camera mounted on a lamppost could use image and audio recognition technologies to detect when a crowd is gathering in the locality, a gun has been fired, a drain has been flooded or an accident has occurred.

Many connected sensors and cameras, of course, won’t be in a fixed location – they will be attached to drones, vehicles and even bicycles, to support use cases where mobility will enhance the service. Such uses cases could include air quality monitoring, wildfire and flooding surveillance, and search and rescue.

Marty Sprinzen, CEO of Vantiq (a provider of event-driven, real-time collaborative applications) believes telecoms companies are best positioned to create a “global digital nervous system” as they have the networks and managed service capabilities to scale these applications for broad deployment. “Secure and reliable connectivity and networking (increasingly on ultrafast 5G networks) are just the beginning in terms of the value telcos can bring,” he wrote in an article for Forbes, published in November 2020. “They can lead on the provisioning and management of the literally billions of IoT devices — cameras, wearables and sensors of all types — that are integral to real-time systems. They can aggregate and analyze the massive amount of data that these systems generate and share insights with their customers. And they can bring together the software providers and integrators and various other parties that will be necessary to build, maintain and run such sophisticated systems.”

Sprinzen regards multi-access edge computing, or MEC, as the key to unlocking this market. He describes MEC as a new, distributed architecture that pushes compute and cloud-like capabilities out of data centres and the cloud to the edge of the network — closer to end-users and billions of IoT devices. This enables the filtering and processing of data at the edge in near real-time, to enable a rapid response to critical events.

This kind of digital nervous system could help curb the adverse impact of future pandemics. “I believe smart building applications will help companies monitor for and manage symptom detection, physical distancing, contact tracing, access management, safety compliance and asset tracking in the workplace,” Sprinzen wrote. “Real-time traffic monitoring will ease urban congestion and reduce the number and severity of accidents. Monitoring and management of water supplies, electrical grids and public transportation will safeguard us against equipment failures or attacks by bad actors. Environmental applications will provide early warnings of floods or wildfires. Food distribution and waste management applications will help us make more of our precious resources.”

Vantiq says one if its telco customers is implementing AI-enabled cameras, IoT sensors, location data and other technologies to monitor various aspects of its new headquarters building. He didn’t identify the telco, but added that it is the lead technology partner for a city that’s implementing a spectrum of smart city solutions to improve mobility, reduce congestion and strengthen disaster prevention.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Managing an unstable world
  • Monitoring air quality
    • Exploiting existing cellular infrastructure
    • Is mobile network data enough?
    • Smart lampposts to play a broad role
    • The economics of connecting environmental sensors
    • Sensors in the sky
  • Natural disasters
    • Spotting wildfires early
    • Earthquake alert systems
    • Crowdsourcing data
    • Infectious diseases
  • On street security
  • Conclusions – the opportunities for telcos
    • Ecosystem coordination – kickstarting the market
    • Devices – finding the right locations
    • Network – reliable, low cost connectivity
    • Data platform
    • Applications
  • Index

 

 

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How telcos can provide a tonic for transport

5G can help revolutionise public transport

With the advent of 5G, STL Partners believes telcos have a broad opportunity to help coordinate better use of the world’s resources and assets, as outlined in the report: The Coordination Age: A third age of telecoms. Reliable and ubiquitous connectivity can enable companies and consumers to use digital technologies to efficiently allocate and source assets and resources.

In urban and suburban transport markets, one precious resource is in short supply – space. Trains can be crowded, roads can be congested and there may be nowhere to park. Following the enormous changes in working patterns in the wake of the pandemic, both individuals and policymakers are reviewing their transport choices.

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This report explores how the concept of mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) is evolving, while outlining the challenges facing those companies looking to transform public transport. In particular, it considers how telcos and 5G could support the development and deployment of automated shuttle buses, which are now beginning to appear on the world’s roads. Whereas self-driving cars are taking much longer to develop than their proponents expected, automated shuttle buses look like a more realistic mid-term prospect. Running on relatively short set routes, these vehicles are easier to automate and can be monitored/controlled by dedicated connectivity infrastructure.

This report also examines the role of 5G connectivity in other potentially-disruptive transport propositions, such as remotely controlled hire cars, passenger drones and flying cars, which could emerge over the next decade. It builds on previous STL Partners research including:

Where is transport headed?

Across the world, transport is in a state of flux. Growing congestion, the pandemic, concerns about air quality and climate change, and the emergence of new technologies are taking the transport sector in new directions. Urban planners have long recognised that having large numbers of half-empty cars crawling around at 20km/hour looking for somewhere to park is not a good use of resources.

Experimentation abounds. Many municipalities are building bike lanes and closing roads to try and encourage people to get out of their cars. In response, sales of electric bikes and scooters are rising fast. The past 10 years has also seen a global boom (followed by a partial bust) in micro-mobility services – shared bikes and scooters. Although they haven’t lived up to the initial hype, these sharing economy services have become a key part of the transport mix in many cities (for more on this, see the STL Partners report: Can telcos help cities combat congestion?).

Indeed, these micro-mobility services may be given a shot in the arm by the difficulties faced by the ride hailing business. In many cities, Uber and Lyft are under intense pressure to improve their driver proposition by giving workers more rights, while complying with more stringent safety regulations. That is driving costs upwards. Uber had hoped to ultimately replace human drivers with self-driving vehicles, but that now looks unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. Tesla, which has always been bullish about the prospects autonomous driving, keeps having to revise its timelines backwards.

Tellingly, the Chinese government has pushed back a target to have more than half of new cars sold to have self-driving capabilities from 2020 to 2025. It blamed technical difficulties, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, in a 2020 statement issued by National Development and Reform Commission and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.

Still, self-driving cars will surely arrive eventually. In July, Alphabet (Google’s parent) reported that its experimental self-driving vehicle unit Waymo continues to grow. “People love the fully autonomous ride hailing service in Phoenix,” Sundar Pichai, CEO Alphabet and Google, enthused. “Since first launching its services to the public in October 2020, Waymo has safely served tens of thousands of rides without a human driver in the vehicle, and we look forward to many more.”

In response to analyst questions, Pichai added: “We’ve had very good experience by scaling up rides. These are driverless rides and no one is in the car other than the passengers. And people have had a very positive experience overall. …I expect us to scale up more through the course of 2022.”

More broadly, the immediate priority for many governments will be on greening their transport systems, given the rising public concern about climate change and extreme weather. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calls for “immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions” to stabilise the earth’s climate. This pressure will likely increase the pace at which traditional components of the transport system become all-electric – cars, motorbikes, buses, bikes, scooters and even small aircraft are making the transition from relying on fossil fuel or muscle power to relying on batteries.

The rest of this 45-page report explores how public transport is evolving, and the role of 5G connectivity and telcos can play in enabling the shift.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Where is transport headed?
    • Mobility-as-a-service
    • The role of digitisation and data
    • Rethinking the bus
    • Takeaways
  • How telcos are supporting public transport
    • Deutsche Telekom: Trying to digitise transport
    • Telia: Using 5G to support shuttle buses
    • Takeaways
  • The key challenges
    • A complex and multi-faceted value chain
    • Regulatory caution
    • Building viable business models
    • Takeaways
  • Automakers become service providers
    • Volvo to retrieve driving data in real-time
    • Automakers and tech companies team up
    • Takeaways
  • Taxis and buses take to the air
    • The prognosis for passenger drones
    • Takeaways
  • Conclusions: Strategic implications for telcos

 

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What edge developers want from telcos now

There is a clear opportunity for telcos to support edge application developers

STL Partners has been writing about edge computing since 2015. We’ve published reports including Edge computing: Five viable telco business models and Telco edge computing: Turning vision into practice. Although this is relatively nascent in the telecoms industry, the domain is maturing rapidly. Discussions are now centring around the “how” and the “when” rather than the “if” and the “why”.

In order to drive these conversations forward, telcos need to listen and learn from developers who will, eventually, be making use of their edge computing capabilities. There are developers who are deeply engaged with the issue of edge computing, seeing it as a game-changing capability for their own solution. But, they also have strong messages they want the telecommunications industry to hear. They have their own requirements and expectations for how edge computing should work. They want clarity around what capabilities it will have, how their application will work on the edge and how they will be charged for its usage. This paper looks to give several application developers at the forefront of edge computing development a platform to address the telecoms industry.

For our interview programme we have focused on four key industries:

  • AR/VR applications
  • Drones
  • Location based services
  • Video and application optimisation

The focus for this paper is on application developers who primarily serve enterprise markets. However, there is real opportunity and applicability for applications running at the edge in the consumer market as well. In particular, some of the AR/VR applications discussed are currently industry focused but could and will eventually be used by consumers as well.

Our hope with this paper is that it will stimulate discussions within the edge computing community as a whole, including all key stakeholders. We also pull out the key practical implications for telcos in terms of business models, the technology they should look to be developing and the partnerships they may wish to establish.

 

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The promise of industry 4.0 is being discussed broadly, and has been for several years. Much of the promise of increased productivity and reduced waste comes from the automation of processes that have typically required routine, often physical, human intervention. STL Partners has evaluated some of these use cases at length, as well as forecasting the value they can bring to the industry, in an upcoming report focused on the manufacturing industry.

However, there is also much promise in applications that, rather than replacing humans, look to increase their safety, efficiency and productivity. And this kind of use case can span outside of manufacturing, into industries such as mining, utilities, construction, architecture and beyond. One of these use cases is using AR/VR/MR (mixed reality) technology to overlay information for workers. This can span from simpler applications such as improving people management through applications that provide information on the order of tasks that should be performed to more complex applications like using augmented reality to visualise 3D CAD models. Benefits of these kinds of solutions include:

  1. Increased productivity of workers. For example, instead of needing to refer to manuals or instructions before returning to the task at hand, instructions can be overlaid on smart glasses so they can be referred to as the task is being completed.
  2. Increase productivity of experts. VR/AR applications can essentially upskill cheaper labour either through the additional information they can receive through the application or through the ability to more closely collaborate with experts who are not physically in the same place as them.
  3. Tasks performed with more accuracy. If workers can be upskilled through the use of overlaid information, then they are less likely to need to redo tasks because mistakes have been made.
  4. Better health, safety and compliance. Overlays on the smart glasses can warn workers of hazards and enable them to more safely handle challenging situations. Where video is stored, compliance to health and safety standards can be proven.

UAV/drones: Struggling to scale

Forecasts for the drone market have been optimistic in predicting take-up of the technology across different industries. There are proven cases of how drones can deliver benefits across different sectors, for example:

  • Delivering packages, such as Amazon’s Prime Air
  • Monitoring critical infrastructure, such as bridges and utility lines
  • Surveying land and the condition of crop in agricultural settings

Outside of delivery, most drone use cases centre on the ability to capture data that has historically been costly, time consuming or dangerous to do so and make sense of it by creating meaningful maps or interpret the data to identify anomalies. For example, France-based start-up Donecle is enabling automated aircraft inspections through drones to improve efficiencies and reduce the time planes spend in the hangar. Software companies such as Pix4D, DroneDeploy and Bentley are the market leaders for providing photogrammetry tools to translate imagery from drones into practical models.

However, adoption is slower than expected. This is partly due to the nascency of the technology; most drones are limited to 30 minutes of flight time, which restricts the amount of data that can be collected in a single session. Regulation for commercial use is inhibiting use, by putting constraints on how large the drone is, when it can fly and how high, as well as mandating the need for pilot qualifications to fly drones.

Ultimately, the challenge is that, until there is a way to continuously collect data and monitor assets/infrastructure, industries and governments will not be able to access the true benefit of using drones. To make a real economic difference, drones must enable a significant volume of data that is not currently accessible. The current model relies on an individual to manually programme the drone to fly and collect the data, then connect it to a PC, to transfer the data and finally upload it to the photogrammetry software to extract insights. Atrius, a start-up we interviewed who is developing data centre units to enable autonomous drones, likened this to using a bucket to collect oil from an oil field and driving back to the refinery to process it into fuel rather than using a pipeline. Instead of using manual processes, data collection and transformation from drones needs to be autonomous – from the drone knowing when to set off and where to go, to interpreting the data and distributing it to the relevant recipients and systems.

Video and application optimisation

The way in which content, video and applications are optimised to improve performance, scalability and security has evolved. This is due to a number of reasons:

  • Application and web page content is increasingly personalised and dynamic – caching static content at the edge is not sufficient.
  • Real-time video streaming is growing in entertainment, as well as enterprise/government applications (e.g. police body cameras) – performance here cannot be improved by moving the content closer to the end-viewer, video has to be optimised as it is captured.
  • Content is being enriched with augmented reality – for example overlaying live statistics on players when streaming a basketball game.

This is driving a need for edge computing and the ability to run workloads closer to the end user, rather than simply cache content or applications in a CDN. Two of our case studies come from this domain, although have very different propositions: the start-up Section provides a platform deploying workloads for developers at the edge and Smart Mobile Labs’ solutions optimise real-time video streaming.

Location-based services

Location-based services leverage information about a user’s location in order to provide targeted information, advertising or offers. Radius Networks provides these types of solutions for the retail and fast food industry. Specifically, they enable solutions such as:

  • Table service. Often used in fast food restaurants, when a customer has ordered they are given a beacon and can go and sit at a table. Staff are able to track the customer and bring their food to them when it has been prepared.
  • Curbside pickup of groceries. When a customer orders groceries in advance and drives to the store to pick it up, their location can be tracked in order for staff to be ready to hand them their order as soon as they arrive in the carpark. This ensures minimum wait time while also minimising the amount of time food is taken out of optimal storage conditions such as a fridge or a freezer.
  • Asset tracking. Assets such as products or machinery can be tracked throughout a store. This can ensure expensive stock or items are not lost and can help with logistical difficulties such as locating a specific package or item in a large warehouse.

There are current technical limitations that come with location-based services, but Radius Networks believes that edge computing can help solve them.

This report looks at the four use case categories in depth, including the types of services application developers are offering, why they need edge computing, and the opportunity for telecoms operators.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • AR/VR for industry
    • Application introduction (AR/VR for industry)
    • 1000 Realities: Edge computing for remote AR assistance
    • Light: edge for heavy duty computing with CAD models
    • Arvizio: edge for dynamic collaboration between remote parties
    • Challenges and implications for telcos
  • UAV/drones
    • Commercial drones are struggling to achieve wide scale adoption
    • Enter edge computing: enabling autonomous drones
    • Atrius’ experience: edge is necessary, and the network is key
    • Challenges and implications for operators
  • Video and application optimisation
    • The changing nature of video and application optimisation
    • Benefits of the telecom edge
    • Edge use cases in video / application optimisation
    • Challenges and implications for operators
  • Location-based services
    • There are current technical limitations that come with location-based services – and edge can help solve them
    • Edge computing and location-based services: how it works
    • Challenges and implications for operators
  • Monetisation opportunities for telcos
  • Conclusions: practical next steps for operators

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Baidu, Xiaomi & DJI: China’s Fast Growing Digital Disruptors

Introduction

The latest report in STL’s new Dealing with Disruption in Communications, Content and Commerce stream, this executive briefing analyses China’s leading digital disruptors and their likely impact outside their home country. The report explores whether the global leaders in digital commerce – Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google – might soon face a serious challenge from a company built in China.

In our previous report, Alibaba & Tencent: China’s Digital Disruptors, we analysed China’s two largest digital ecosystems – Alibaba, which shares many similarities with Amazon, and Tencent, which is somewhat similar to Facebook. It explored the intensifying arms race between these two groups in China, their international ambitions and the support they might need from telcos and other digital players.

This executive briefing covers Baidu, China’s answer to Google and the anchor for a third digital ecosystem, and the fast-growing smartphone maker, Xiaomi, which has the potential to build a fourth major ecosystem. It also takes a close look at DJI, the world-leading drone manufacturer, which is well worth watching for its mid-to-long term potential to create another major ecosystem around consumer robotics.

Context: sizing up China’s disruptors

As U.S. companies have demonstrated time and time again, a large and dynamic domestic market can be a springboard to global dominance. Can China’s leading digital disruptors, which also benefit from a large and dynamic domestic market, also become major players on the global stage?

Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu, which run China’s leading digital ecosystems, have all developed in a digital economy that has been partially protected by cultural and linguistic characteristics, together with government policies and regulations. As a result, Google, Facebook and Amazon haven’t been able to replicate their global dominance in China. Of the big four global disruptors, only Apple can be said to be have a major presence in China.

Thanks to their strong position in China, Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu are among the leading Internet companies globally, as measured by market capitalisation (see Figure 2). As China’s economy slows (although it will still grow about 7% this year, according to government figures), many of China’s digital players are putting more focus on international growth. Alibaba & Tencent: China’s Digital Disruptors of this report outlined how Alibaba is gaining traction in other major middle income countries, notably Russia, whereas Tencent is trying, with limited success, to expand outside of China

Figure 2:  China is home to four of the world’s most valuable publicly-listed Internet companies

Source: Source: Morgan Stanley, Capital IQ, Bloomberg via KPCB

Of the five companies covered in the two parts of this report, search specialist Baidu is the least international – its revenues are almost all generated in China and its services aren’t much used outside its home country. Innovative and fast growing handset maker Xiaomi is still heavily dependent on China, but is seeing strong sales in other developing markets. The most international of the three is DJI, the world’s leading drone maker, which is making major inroads into the U.S. and Western Europe – the heartland of Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook.

As discussed in Alibaba & Tencent: China’s Digital Disruptors, international telcos, media companies and banks all have a strategic interest in encouraging more digital competition globally. Today, the big four U.S.-based disruptors dominate the digital economy in North America, Western Europe, Latin America and much of the developing world, limiting the mindshare and market share available to other players.

Many telcos are particularly concerned about Apple’s and Facebook’s ever-strengthening position in digital communications – a core telecoms service. They also fret about Google’s and Amazon’s power in digital commerce and content. On the basis that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, telcos might want to support Xiaomi’s challenge to Apple, while backing Tencent’s efforts to make messaging app WeChat an international service and Alibaba’s growing rivalry with Amazon (both aspects are covered in the previous report).

  • Introduction
  • Executive Summary
  • Context: sizing up China’s disruptors
  • Baidu – China’s low cost Google
  • Why Baidu is important
  • Baidu’s business models
  • How big an impact will Baidu have outside China?
  • Threats to Baidu
  • Xiaomi – Apple without the margins?
  • Why Xiaomi is important
  • Business model
  • Xiaomi’s likely International impact
  • Threats to Xiaomi
  • DJI – more than a flight of fancy
  • Why DJI is important
  • DJI’s business model
  • Threats to DJI
  • Conclusions and implications for telcos
  • Baidu, Xiaomi and DJI could all build major ecosystems
  • Implications for telcos and other digital players

 

  • Figure 1: Baidu is significantly smaller than Tencent, Alibaba and Facebook
  • Figure 2: China is home to four of the world’s most valuable publically-listed Internet companies
  • Figure 3: Baidu is in the world’s top 15 media owners
  • Figure 4: Baidu is one of the world’s leading app developers
  • Figure 5: Baidu’s clean and uncluttered home page resembles that of Google
  • Figure 6: Baidu is beginning to monetise its millions of mobile users
  • Figure 7: IQiyi has broken into the top ten iOS apps worldwide
  • Figure 8: 2014 was a banner year for Baidu’s top line
  • Figure 9: Mobile now generates almost 50% of Baidu’s revenues
  • Figure 10: Baidu says its mobile browser is popular in Indonesia
  • Figure 11: Xiaomi is a rising star in the smartphone market
  • Figure 12: The slimline Mi Note has won plaudits for its design
  • Figure 13: The $15 Mi Band: A lot of technology for not a lot of money
  • Figure 14: One of Ninebot’s products – an electric unicycle
  • Figure 15: Xiaomi is turning its MIUI into a digital commerce platform
  • Figure 16: Xiaomi even has fan sites in markets where its handsets aren’t readily available
  • Figure 17: Drones’ primary job today is aerial photography
  • Figure 18: DJI majors on ease-of-use
  • Figure 18: DJI claims its Inspire One can transmit video pictures over 2km
  • Figure 20: DJI’s Go app delivers a real-time video feed to a smartphone or tablet
  • Figure 21: Baidu’s frugal innovation