Intelligence Brief: IoT musings from MWCS

03 JUL 2018

This year’s Mobile World Congress Shanghai (MWCS) theme was Discover a Better Future. As always, MWCS covers a lot of topics. One of them that couldn’t be ignored was IoT. What was happening there?

Having attended MWCS two years ago, I was curious to see how the show has changed over the years. And, oh boy, it has. Mostly because the low power IoT tech NB-IoT has come of of age. Instead of vendors showing their support for NB-IoT they were showcasing their products.

I did a lot of walking around the halls of MWCS, not only to and from meetings, but also leading the IoT tours. Meeting IoT exhibitors and engaging with tour participants allowed me to take a step back and get insight into what’s on the mind of people at the forefront of IoT deployment. Over the course of the show, key takeaways emerged. I shared these on the tours and here’s an overview of my thoughts:

Field of Dreams fallacy. There’s a growing understanding that it is not a case of “build it and they’ll come” (well, maybe that’s the case in China, but the world’s largest mobile region is a very unique market: as we have explained before, the government plays a significant role in scaling industrial IoT in China). IoT solutions were all over MWCS, (be it NB-IoT, LoRa or 5G) and the use of those for industrial applications stood out. While fully fledged business models are not yet defined, there seems to be a clear understanding that rolling out an IoT technology just to tick a box is not the way to go. Instead, it is about addressing the needs and asks of a particular industry. This usually involves solving a specific problem, for example improving milk production (otherwise known as connected cow); or how to increase manufacturing efficiency by intelligently connecting the manufacturing process, from robots through to production lines. There were plenty of use case examples throughout the showfloor. For example, in the 4YFN Hall, Connected China showcased 12 developers; start-ups and companies; products and solutions using Mobile IoT technologies, ranging from connected yaks to manholes.

The critical importance of partners. No one company can “do it all” in IoT; by which I mean provide an end-to-end offering from chipset through application to system integration. The IoT ecosystem is complex and fragmented, and therefore having a network of partners is a recipe for success. Huawei is a good example of this: it currently has a network of over 1,000 partners. Logically it makes no sense for Huawei to have a cow fertility expert, thus it worked with Aotoso to develop this solution. Other players are following suit, for example China Unicom, which aims to build a vibrant IoT industry ecosystem in order to enable digital transformation by increasing cooperation with vertical industries. Zhang Yong, president of China Unicom’s Network Technology Research Institute, declared: “We will also create a developer community to activate the innovation capabilities of industrial partners”. This approach was reinforced with deals announced during the show, with China Mobile and Ericsson signing a cooperation agreement to use the Device Connection Platform to expand China Mobile’s IoT offering internationally. China Unicom also announced that it will look to leverage Semtech’s LoRa devices and technology in China.

LPWA winners and losers. I was quite often asked which low power wide area (LPWA) technology will win. My take is that we should be looking at complementing not competing technologies. Both licensed (NB-IoT and LTE-M) and unlicensed (LoRa and Sigfox) technologies have a surrounding ecosystem of partners. While Mobile IoT is dubbed to be the long-term solution for licensed LPWA as both LTE-M and NB-IoT have been confirmed as key parts of 5G, operators have been deploying LoRa as well. Why? Well, delivering services to enterprise clients in very specific regions where broader network coverage isn’t required means a need for private networks. LPWA technologies will co-exist in the near future. Rather than a winner takes all approach, it is a question of what type of technology works the best for each solution. Case in point: US operator AT&T, one of the strongest backers of LTE-M, recently announced it will rollout NB-IoT, while South Korea-based KT has LTE-M, NB-IoT and LoRa on offer.

Security is key. Security received a lot of attention during the tour and during the show. Exhibitors demonstrated multifaceted IoT security solutions, from proving the authenticity of the IoT device through encryption and secure connectivity. Meanwhile the GSMA announced that a group of more than a dozen mobile operators from around the world had committed to implementing the GSMA IoT Security Guidelines. Outlining best practices and recommendations for security covering the entirety of the IoT ecosystem is only part of the solution, but it’s a good start.

The efforts in China won’t be replicable everywhere. Likewise, the needs of China and the broader APAC region as represented at MWCS may not be the needs of every other market. But, they point to some universal IoT truisms – the need for use cases, security, partners, et cetera. It will be fun to see how these evolve and play out across the year. See you at MWC Americas in September!

– Sylwia Kechiche, principal analyst – IoT, GSMA Intelligence

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.