Connected things – the second stage of the hyper-connectivity revolution

Believe it or not, we are in the second stage of the hyper-connectivity revolution.

The first stage, of course, reached its point of no return when my wife (a staunch opponent to things that are “new”) succumbed to the need of getting a smartphone, and subscribing to Whatsapp… Easy jokes aside, “connected people” is now a reality even in the most resistant user segments of modern society… First stage of hyper-connectivity revolution is virtually completed…

Which brings us to the second stage: “connected things”. Yes, via the Internet of Things (IoT).

Probably, within the time I spend writing this article, several tens of thousands of devices will have connected to the IoT for the first time. And they will continue doing so until they become obsolete. Another day we will talk about why things are getting connected (my short answer to this is that a connected thing is exponentially more valuable that the same thing not being connected).

This brings us to the devices that really matter… Your devices…

 

How to connect them?

We see two dominating philosophies here:

  • Somebody else will provide the connectivity
  • You will provide the connectivity

Expecting that the connectivity “will be there” (be it via WLAN, Bluetooth or even a SIM Card) is something that most of the producers of products addressed to private users do. It makes production and distribution easier. And even the business model is simpler). But it has a disadvantage: it can be that the device never gets connected. Or if it does, it can be that it uses an unstable connection and it doesn’t work when it is needed. This of course might be acceptable in some cases, but it will not do for business or life critical applications…

… Which brings us to the second philosophy: You provide the connectivity.

When you provide the connectivity embedded with your product, you make a massive step forward in terms of value: you can ensure your devices are connected as they should. In case there is any problem, you are in control of the end-to-end service chain… But there is one more thing: you become more relevant. Because adding connectivity means that your customers need you even more.

 

What connectivity?

As the range of applications and devices joining the IoT grows, it became evident that a “one fits them all” connectivity is not what the Hyper-Connectivity Revolution, stage 2 needs.

Indeed, your device may be a position tracker for dogs (or cats) using 0,5 MB per month or a CCTV Camera using 20 GB per month. It may be moving around the World or it may be stationary. It may send data each now and then or it may be that it’s business (or life) critical and must be connected at all times…

The need (and opportunity) to support different requirements has generated a myriad of technologies to connect your devices: LoRa, GSM, UMTS, LTE, SigFox, LTE-M, NB-IoT, ZigBee, Satellite, MiWi, DigiMEsh, WirelessHART and others… So, which one is the right one for you?

I think there are several factors to be considered, but there are two factors that score high in the list of most of the companies with whom we talk: for how long will be this technology around? And also: where is it available? All other concerns become secondary when you compare them with these two: firstly, if you are going to deliver thousands of devices to the market, which may be used for 5, 10 or 20 years, you really need to be pretty sure that the connectivity networks servicing them will be available during all that time. Secondly, if those devices are going to be used in many different locations, then you also need to be pretty sure that networks will be available there: ubiquity matters. Because of these two concerns, we will focus on connectivity technologies that are standardized by widely accepted and used standardization bodies.

The most widely available connectivity technologies today are those standardized by the 3GPP. That is: mobile networks. Therefore, we will focus specifically on those.

 

What are the key drivers for Mobile IoT Connectivity?

The comparison between High-end IoT Connectivity and a Personal Connectivity is a bit like the comparison between a high-end professional drilling machine and the one you buy for the home. One will be a long lasting and heavy-duty machine that will be used in a variety of situations without letting you down… The other one will be fine to drill some holes at home, provided that the walls are not made of armoured concrete…

There is a difference between IoT Connectivity and a driller, though… If when you had just bought your new home you got the typical cost-cutting bug and bought a cheap driller… Well, you can always buy a better one at a later stage… However, once you have linked a device to an IoT Connectivity provider (e.g. by installing a SIM Card in it), changing the IoT Connectivity provider can be a very painful exercise. Unless you are using an eSIM (something we will discuss another day), changing the IoT Connectivity provider will require to physically exchanging the SIM. For companies with tens or even hundreds of thousands of devices in the field this can be a titanic undertaking.

So, if you are going to pick a partner to supply your IoT Connectivity, that one you will be stuck with (for good or bad) for the next years, you could as well take some time and make an informed decision. In my experience the next few factors are the ones that most fundamentally contribute to a great IoT Connectivity.

 

Coverage

This looks pretty evident, but it is sometimes overlooked: no Mobile Network Operator covers 100% of one country. And in IoT close to 100% coverage matters. A lot. Think about tracking solutions that have no connection during an emergency situation. Or a truck that does not receive an instruction to collect something until it is 50 Km away…

IoT Connectivity for professional usage needs to give your device access to several of (or all) the available networks in any country where the device may potentially be used.

 

Absence of Steering

The SIM Card you put into your device typically belongs to a home network. This is what you would normally call “your” network operator. In most cases, “your” mobile operator is based in one country. When the device is in that country it will only be able to access the network of “your” network operator.

So, the device is in another country and it can access foreign networks. They are known as “visited” networks. Now your device can access any network it wants in that country… Or not… Why not? Because your IoT Connectivity provider might be applying “Steering”.

What is Steering? “Your” home network must pay for the usage you make of the “visited” networks. How much it must pay boils down to a commercial agreement. The prices IoT Connectivity provider pays to other network operators within the same country can change from one operator to another. Needless to say, they prefer that you use the networks that are cheaper for them… And they can do that by using Steering Technology.

Steering Technology will force your device to choose a specific network if available. It will not matter if the signal strength of that network is low. It will not matter if that network can only offer 2G in that spot, while your device prefers 3G… It will not matter if in that very same spot there are other networks available offering full signal strength and faster connections… Only when the “cheaper” network is not available anymore, then your device will be allowed to use an alternative network.

Steering is often a problem for devices, which are in a stationary location in a place in which Steering forces it to use a network with weak signal there, or a low speed connection. It is also a problem for vehicles moving in roads in which the Steering forces them to use networks with intermittent coverage and the device will be forced to disconnect and re-connect each time that the steered network appears and disappears.

 

Conclusion: if possible, avoid network steering in your IoT Connectivity.

 

Available networks / countries

Interestingly, machines travel more than people… Don’t you find it’s a kind of magic that the devices you produce are used in remote locations in which you have never set foot? Now imagine that those devices are sending data from those faraway locations to your servers… It is even more magic, isn’t it?… Well, that will be if the IoT Connectivity provider you chose actually offers connectivity in that country, something that in many cases should not be taken for granted.

Knowing where your products will be sold and where they will be used (often, two entirely different things) is key for business planning. But many companies lack that information for the mid and long term. Therefore, it is crucial to have access to IoT Connectivity that can be used in as many countries as possible.

Even if you are offered with a long list of supported countries, this will not be the whole story. Why? Because, like before, it is also better to have access to several (or all) networks in those countries… and if possible, without steering.

 

Connectivity Management Platform

Ok, you start testing your devices with the SIM Cards from your chosen IoT Connectivity provider. They work great. Not only in your office or lab location, but also in other countries… You launch your product. At the beginning it’s only a pilot and you have some tens or hundreds of SIM Cards. Later you have thousands of connected devices… And then tens of thousands… Now and again you start having problems with this or that connection. Some devices start using more connectivity than expected. They start being used in countries, in which costs are very high. Your own customers start asking to get information about how “their” (your) devices use data… You introduce new functions and the data usage goes up, so you start having different tariffs, which you need to assign… Growth means that you need to think about need manufacturing processes, which are difficult to reconciliate with the inclusion and testing of the IoT Connectivity… You introduce new IT tools, which need to be integrated to the handling of Connectivity…

One of the most overseen factors when selecting an IoT Connectivity provider is the tools that are available to manage that connectivity. A couple of years down the path, companies struggle to understand where their IoT Connectivity costs come from, how their data is being used… Simple tasks such as activating/deactivating SIM Cards, control how much data they are using, prevent over-usage, etc. become an operational nightmare…

In future posts we will discuss about what are the fundamentals of a Connectivity Management Platform and the efficiencies you will gain from such a great platform. We will also share the insights that we have benefited from when implementing our own platform and how it is benefiting enterprises across several industrial segments. Figure our what out SIM Connectivity Management Platform can deliver to you.

 

Flexibility

Flexibility is another one of the most overseen factors when selecting an IoT Connectivity provider… Even if on the paper the cost and capabilities offered by that service provider seem fine, it is commonly known that the crystal ball that that we use to forecast the future tends to be inaccurate, to say the least. Adapting to changing business situations require flexibility, and having that flexibility may prove priceless in the future.

On the other side, most organizations providing IoT Connecltivity are large corporations, which tend to miss that bit of entrepreneurship. Their focus on business predictability will often mean that those conditions that seem great to you have some hidden traps… The most common ones: number of activated SIM Cards after a period of time (a piling problem if your growth is not as fast as expected), upfront payments, technical capabilities, prices in initially unimportant regions…

Even if those might seem affordable, there are further and deeper implications of lack of flexibility. For example, there are devices that will be used for more than 5 or 10 years. What happens if the performance of you IoT Connectivity provider changes negatively during that time period? There are many situations that might lead to this: international Mobile Operators merging, falling back in network investments, prices remain at unreasonably high levels… In some European countries, some network operators have announced they will discontinue 2G in certain countries… To the dismay of customers with hundreds of thousands of SIM Cards installed in devices, which only support 2G networks…

Modern IoT Connectivity providers MUST provide you with the right level of flexibility. It is not exaggerated to say that your business may depend on it!

 

Cost

As with virtually everything in life, you get what you pay for… IoT Connectivity is a matter of B2B: if it is too cheap to be true, then it is probably not true… In another blog we will share with you what are the Cost Drivers of IoT Connectivity.

However, cost does not represent the whole picture. In the past we have been involved in discussions with Network Operators in which the initial “wow, this is cheap” impression has been followed by a “we cannot use it” realisation. Indeed, often “price” does not translate into “cost of ownership”. Cost of ownership is usually related to business and pricing models. Getting the right business/price model for you is fundamental for the business success of your IoT products.

We are constantly in contact with enterprises, large and small, which are connecting new products and services to the IoT. Together we explore incredible use cases and applications of IoT, which do not cease to amaze us. If you want to discuss with us your IoT journey, we are only and e-mail or a telephone call away from you!… 🙂

 

Our Approach

In general, Connectivity is that type of thing which you only remember when there are problems related to it. Problems related to Connectivity can be difficult to solve, specially because they can be related to network related issues that are not easy nor quick to solve… Or because the tools provided by you service provider cannot be changed easily…

 

Our experience shows that when it comes to business and even life critical applications, lesser than top quality connectivity is just not good enough.