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IoT and the changing role of service providers

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Until now, the offerings of Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) have been geared towards mobile broadband and voice packages, writes Martin Walshaw, senior engineer at F5 Networks.
As a result, their networks have been built to cater for personal devices such as smartphones, laptops and tablets. However, MNOs are quickly having to prepare for a third offering: The Internet of Things (IoT), which includes devices previously not considered as ‘connected’, ranging from multi-purpose sensors and smart meters for utility companies on the one hand, to connected cars and trucks for car manufacturers and logistics companies on the other.
New use cases for IoT are popping up on an almost daily basis, so the business opportunity for both mobile operators as well as IoT platform providers is substantial.
According to Gartner, there will be nearly 21-billion devices in the Internet of Things by 2020. Regardless of whether this figure is accurate – some think it’s too high (in fact, Gartner has revised its prediction down in recent years) – MNOs are going to experience a rapid increase in the amount of devices communicating over their networks. This will require a fundamental re-think of the infrastructure enabling these services to run smoothly.
Get this wrong and MNOs will quickly lose out in the battle to attract IoT spend, as well as our loyalty when it comes to voice and broadband services.
As well as an increase in volume, MNOs need to factor in that IoT devices may communicate very differently compared to smartphones and computers. Some IoT devices tend to exchange relatively small amounts of data and connect and disconnect to the network very infrequently. Examples of this are smart meters (such gas or electricity) providing their latest values to a centralised repository.
In contrast, a connected car may exchange diagnostics information to this central hub while also offering mobile broadband services for in-car entertainment, thereby exchanging a lot of data over the mobile connection for a longer period of time.
This difference in ‘IoT endpoint’ behaviour places very different demands on both the network as well as the data centre responsible for processing and hosting this information. For example, a 4G network is very suitable for the connected car use case, but may not be the best choice for the smart metering scenario. Smart metering only requires a low bandwidth channel that can be accessed with minimal power consumption.
On the data centre side, adopting cloud technologies is critical. The ability to quickly spin up a virtual environment delivering both the network functionalities as well as the IoT platform functionalities addressing the specifics to each IoT use case, is crucial. Indeed, due to the wide variety of IoT use cases, there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
In order to achieve and maintain continuous IoT application availability and keep up with the pace of new IoT application rollouts, organisations must ensure their cloud infrastructure is robust, possessing the flexibility and agility to scale and adapt when needed.
On the whole, the service provider industry is well on its way to building IoT-ready infrastructures and services. Core network consolidation is also well under way, which helps to reduce overall costs, but also allows for new services to be introduced much faster than before as the networks have become much simpler as a result of this consolidation.
In some of the early adopter IoT projects globally, service providers have adopted cloud technologies such as Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV) to build the infrastructure components to deliver IoT use cases, arguably providing the blueprint for the future of IoT infrastructure. NFV is a network architecture concept that virtualises entire classes of network node functions into building blocks that may connect, or chain together, to create highly scalable communication services.
Originally the primary goal of NFV was to reduce capex and opex for the service provider. However, service providers increasingly see NFV as a way to introduce new services and adapt existing services much faster than ever before. With IoT putting very different requirements on the network and applications they support, NFV deployments will be essential for service providers looking to address the IoT market.
As the promised-land of the Internet of Things approaches, service providers are well positioned to become the facilitators and engine-room of this super-connected world. Evidently, service providers will provide the radio connectivity to the IoT devices, however, many service providers may also want to step higher into the value chain and offer the IoT platform to interested parties as well. Yet, while strong cloud infrastructure and early experience with NFV provides a decent footing, there are still a number of challenges for service providers to continue working on.
Connecting IoT devices is one thing, securing them and securing the applications they connect to is another. Service providers have become much more security-aware in recent years as cyber and DDoS attacks have impacted other areas of their business. This has made some companies more cautious in terms of their expansion into the IoT.
This might not be a bad thing. Ultimately, we as consumers (be it a business or a person), will only enjoy the full benefits of the connected world if the networks and infrastructures underpinning it are secure and soundly managed.