Commerce and connectivity: A match made in heaven?

Rakuten and Reliance: The exceptions or the rule?

Over the past decade, STL Partners has analysed how connectivity, commerce and content have become increasingly interdependent – as both shopping and entertainment go digital, telecoms networks have become key distribution channels for all kinds of consumer businesses. Equally, the growing availability of digital commerce and content are driving demand for connectivity both inside and outside the home.

To date, the top tier of consumer Internet players – Google, Apple, Amazon, Alibaba, Tencent and Facebook – have tended to focus on trying to dominate commerce and content, largely leaving the provision of connectivity to the conventional telecoms sector. But now some major players in the commerce market, such as Rakuten in Japan and Reliance in India, are pushing into connectivity, as well as content.

This report considers whether Rakuten’s and Reliance’s efforts to combine content, commerce and connectivity into a single package is a harbinger of things to come or the exceptions that will prove the longstanding rule that telecoms is a distinct activity with few synergies with adjacent sectors. The provision of connectivity has generally been regarded as a horizontal enabler for other forms of economic activity, rather than part of a vertically-integrated service stack.

This report also explores the extent to which new technologies, such as cloud-native networks and open radio access networks, and an increase in licence-exempt spectrum, are making it easier for companies in adjacent sectors to provide connectivity. Two chapters cover Google and Amazon’s connectivity strategies respectively, analysing the moves they have made to date and what they may do in future. The final section of this report draws some conclusions and then considers the implications for telcos.

This report builds on earlier STL Partners research, including:

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Mixing commerce and connectivity

Over the past decade, the smartphone has become an everyday shopping tool for billions of people, particularly in Asia. As a result, the smartphone display has become an important piece of real estate for the global players competing for supremacy in the digital commerce market. That real estate can be accessed via a number of avenues – through the handset’s operating system, a web browser, mobile app stores or through the connectivity layer itself.

As Google and Apple exercise a high degree of control over smartphone operating systems, popular web browsers and mobile app stores, other big digital commerce players, such as Amazon, Facebook and Walmart, risk being marginalised. One way to avoid that fate may be to play a bigger role in the provision of wireless connectivity as Reliance Industries is doing in India and Rakuten is doing in Japan.

For telcos, this is potentially a worrisome prospect. By rolling out its own greenfield mobile network, e-commerce, and financial services platform Rakuten has brought disruption and low prices to Japan’s mobile connectivity market, putting pressure on the incumbent operators. There is a clear danger that digital commerce platforms use the provision of mobile connectivity as a loss leader to drive to traffic to their other services.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Mixing connectivity and commerce
    • Why Rakuten became a mobile network operator
    • Will Rakuten succeed in connectivity?
    • Why hasn’t Rakuten Mobile broken through?
    • Borrowing from the Amazon playbook
    • How will the hyperscalers react?
  • New technologies, new opportunities
    • Capacity expansion
    • Unlicensed and shared spectrum
    • Cloud-native networks and Open RAN attract new suppliers
    • Reprogrammable SIM cards
  • Google: Knee deep in connectivity waters
    • Google Fiber and Fi maintain a holding pattern
    • Google ramps up and ramps down public Wi-Fi
    • Google moves closer to (some) telcos
    • Google Cloud targets telcos
    • Big commitment to submarine/long distance infrastructure
    • Key takeaways: Vertical optimisation not integration
  • Amazon: A toe in the water
    • Amazon Sidewalk
    • Amazon and CBRS
    • Amazon’s long distance infrastructure
    • Takeaways: Control over connectivity has its attractions
  • Conclusions and implications for telcos in digital commerce/content
  • Index

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Reliance Unlimit: How to build a successful IoT ecosystem

Reliance Unlimit’s success so far

Unlimit, Reliance Jio’s standalone IoT business in India, established in 2016, understood from the start that the problem with the IoT wasn’t the availability of technology, but how to quickly pull it all together into a clear, affordable solutions for the end customer. The result is that less than four years later, it has deployed more than 35,000 end-to-end IoT projects for a prestigious portfolio of customers, including Nissan Motor, MG Motor, Bata, DHL, GSK and Unilever. To meet their varying and evolving needs, Unlimit had built a IoT ecosystem of almost 600 partner companies by the end of 2019. Of these, nearly 100 are fully certified partners, with which Unlimit co-innovates solutions tailored to the Indian market.

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The state of the IoT: Balancing cost and complexity

In 1968, Theodore Paraskevakos, a Greek American inventor and businessman, explored the idea of making two machines communicate to each other. He first developed a system for transmitting the caller’s number to the receiver’s device. Building on this experiment, in 1977 he founded Metretek Inc, a company that conducted commercial automatic meter reading, which is essentially today’s commercial smart meter. From then, the world of machine to machine communications (M2M) developed rapidly. The objective was mainly to remotely monitor devices in order to understand conditions and performance. The M2M world was strongly telecommunications-oriented and focused on solving specific business problems. Given this narrow focus, there was little diversity in devices, data sets were specific to one or two measurements, and the communications protocols were well known. Given this context, it is fair to describe first-generation M2M solutions as a siloed, with little – if any – interaction with other data and solutions.

The benefits and challenges of the IoT

The purpose of the Internet of Things (IoT) is to open those silos and incorporate solution designers and developers into the operating environment. In this evolved environment, there might be several applications and solutions, each delivering a unique operational benefit. Each of those solutions require different devices, which produce different data. And those devices require life cycle management, the data needs to be analysed to inform better decisions, and automation integrated to improve efficiency in the operational environment. The communication methods between those devices can also vary significantly, depending on the environment, where the data is, and the type of applications and intelligence required. Finally, all this needs to run securely.

Therefore, the IoT has opened the silos, but it has brought complexity. The question is then whether this complexity is worth it for the operational benefits.

There are several studies highlighting the advantages of IoT solutions. The recent Microsoft IoT Signals publication, which surveys over 3000 decision makers in companies operating across different sectors, clearly demonstrates the value that IoT is bringing to organisations. The top three benefits are:

  • 91% of respondents claim that the IoT has increased efficiency
  • 91% of respondents claim that the IoT has increased yield
  • 85% of respondents claim that the IoT has increased quality.

The sectors leading IoT adoption

The same study highlights how these benefits are materialising in different business sectors. According to this study – and many others – manufacturing is seen as a top adopter of IoT solutions, as also highlighted in STL Partners research on the Industrial IoT.

Automotive, supply chain and logistics are other sectors that have widely adopted the IoT. Their leadership comes from a long M2M heritage, since telematics was a core application of M2M, and is an important part of the supply chain and logistics process.

The automotive sector’s early adoption of IoT was also driven by regulatory initiatives in different parts of the world, for instance to support remotely monitored emergency services in case of accidents (e.g. EU eCall). To enable this, M2M SIMs were embedded in cars, and only activated in the case of an accident, sending a message to an emergency centre. From there, the automotive industry and mobile network operators gradually developed a broader range of applications, culminating in the concept of connected cars. The connected car is much more sophisticated than a single emergency SIM – it is an IoT environment in which an array of sensors is gathering different data, sharing that data externally in various forms of V2X settings, supporting in-vehicle infotainment, and also enabling semiautonomous mobility. Sometime in the future, this will mature into fully autonomous mobility.

The complexity of an IoT solution

The connected car clearly represents the evolution from siloed M2M solutions to the IoT with multiple interdependent data sources and solutions. Achieving this has required the integration of various technologies into an IoT architecture, as well as the move towards automation and prediction of events, which requires embedding advanced analytics and AI technology frameworks into the IoT stack.

High level view of an IoT architecture

Overview of IoT architecture

Source: Saverio Romeo, STL Partners

There are five levels on an IoT architecture:

  1. The hardware level includes devices, sensors, gateways and hardware development components such as microcontrollers.
  2. The communication level includes the different types of IoT connectivity (cellular, LP-WAN, fixed, satellite, short-range wireless and others) and the communication protocols used in those forms of connectivity.
  3. The middleware software backend level is a set of software layers that are traditionally called an IoT platform. A high-level breakdown of the IoT platform includes a connectivity management layer, a device management layer, and data management and orchestration, data analytics and visualisations layers.
  4. The application level includes application development enablement tools and the applications themselves. Those tools enable the development of applications using machine-generated data and various other sources of data –all integrated by the IoT platform. It also includes applications that use results of these analytics to enable remote and automated actions on IoT devices.
  5. Vertically across these levels, there is a security layer. Although this is simplified into a single vertical layer, in practice there are separate security features integrated into IoT solutions at each layer of the architecture. Those features work together to offer layer-to-layer and end-to-end security. This is a complex process that required a detailed use of security-by-design methodology.

The IoT architecture is therefore composed of different technological parts that need to be integrated in order to work correctly in the different circumstances of potential deployment. The IoT architecture also needs to enable scalability supporting the expansion of a solution in terms of number of devices and volume and types of data. Each architectural layer is essential for the IoT solution to work, and they must interact with each other harmoniously, but each requires different technological expertise and skills.

An organisation that wants to offer end-to-end IoT solutions must therefore make a strategic choice between “in-house” IoT architecture development, or form strategic partnerships with existing IoT technology platform providers, and integrate their solutions into a coherent architecture to support an IoT ecosystem.

In the following sections of this report, we discuss Unlimit’s decision to take an ecosystem approach to building its IoT business, and the steps it took to get where it is today.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
    • Four lessons from Unlimit on building IoT ecosystems
    • How Unlimit built a successful IoT ecosystem
    • What next?
  • The state of the IoT: Balancing cost and complexity
    • The benefits and challenges of the IoT
    • The sectors leading IoT adoption
    • The complexity of an IoT solution
    • The nature of business ecosystems
  • How Unlimit built a successful IoT business
    • So far, Unlimit looks like a success
    • How will Unlimit sustain leadership and growth?
  • Lessons from Unlimit’s experience

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