IoT: a Mobile Network Operator Perspective
The world that is shaping in front of us brings visions of hyper-connectivity or, to put it another way, of an incredibly large number of connections between the different elements of the world that we see. The skeleton supporting IoT is, at the end of the day, exactly that: a dense network of connections between a multitude of points that makes possible a level of vision, perception, awareness and, last but not least, control on the world that surrounds us that was simply not possible even to think about before.
We are often tempted to limit our thinking only to the points that we want to connect: sensors, smart devices, collection points, processing centers and so on, and sometimes we risk to take for granted those very "connection lines" that transform IoT from a concept into reality. This is now becoming the typical vision of a smartphone user, who expects data connectivity to be available always, at high speed, without interruptions, no matter where the user is and what are the operating conditions.
The evolution curve
One of the authors of this article started to work on Machine-to-Machine (M2M) applications almost 14 years ago, when he was developing a monitoring platform for illumination systems installed on hi-voltage pylons. At that time, the options for creating a network of "things" spread across a country were limited to GSM modems with SMS used to carry messages between the monitored pylons and the main data centre. There were no mobile contracts available specifically for M2M operations and several limitations were in place for M2M use. For instance, a typical mobile contract stated that your SIM had to move; unfortunately, hi-voltage pylons do not move around that much and overcoming this problem was not an easy task at that time. Another problem was the expiration date of the SIM card: to avoid disconnection from the network periodic recharges had to be made to ensure credit was still available.
The mobile world at that time was clearly not M2M-oriented and such applications were considered by Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) more like an annoying niche market unable to bring substantial value to the business.
In 14 years things have changed dramatically: every MNO has started to consider M2M as a potential revenue-generating opportunity and M2M specific requirements have been introduced in telecom standards. At the same time, MNOs are beginning to include offers in their service portfolios that incorporate connectivity and processing solutions for B2B solutions in a single package, like fleet management or similar medium to large scale solutions.
Notwithstanding that, it is still quite difficult for an end user to find a mobile contract that fits normal M2M requirements. The contrast between this reality and the increasing volume of devices that should make use of cellular-based solutions for connectivity (e.g. home or car protection) is simply striking.
This contradiction can perhaps find an explanation in the often contrasting needs a MNO has to manage when it comes to the definition of its commercial offering: efficiently managing a market that requires on one side support for hi-bandwidth, on-off users, like commuters using YouTube, and on the other side billions of smart devices with low transfer rates and very low power requirements, can be extremely challenging.
Where we are going?
The 2016 Ericsson Mobility Report  projects a very interesting vision of the future and also gives some insights into what is happening between mobile networks and the IoT world:
- In 2015, 0.4 billion IoT devices (out of 4.6 billion in total) were using cellular technology;
- By 2018, the number of IoT sensors and devices is expected to exceed the number of mobile phones and become therefore the largest category of connected devices;
- By 2021, a total of 15.7 billion IoT devices is expected to be connected – of this amount, 1.5 billion will be using a cellular technology.
In other words, even if cellular-based IoT devices will account "only" for a little less than 10% of the total number of connected devices by 2021, cellular-connected IoT devices will have grown at the same time by a factor of 2.7 compared with 2015.
There are also two interesting items of information that can be deduced from these figures:
- The relatively slow diffusion of cellular-based IoT devices seen until now is caused by the technological requirements and limitations of the early mobile networks. GSM, for instance, required significant transmission power and a significant percentage of the total traffic volume was used for the control plane (i.e. the logical connection links used to setup and manage connection, mobility, etc.). These factors posed severe limitations to M2M and IoT applications;
- The explosive growth rate by which cellular-based IoT devices is expected to spread is related to the much higher attention 3GPP (the standards body that generates standards for mobile networks) has now put in IoT, resulting in new network standards that fully support IoT requirements . Such new designs, named EC-GSM-IoT (Extended Coverage GSM for the Internet of Things) and LTE-M (Long-Term Evolution for Machines), are based on existing technologies and already licensed spectrum and include low power and extended range support, making it possible to build low-power networks using existing infrastructure with limited changes. Unfortunately, GSMA does not foresee the first commercial deployments of IoT specific cellular networks before late 2016 - early 2017 . Considering the current situation in terms of readiness of the different actors involved together with lessons learnt from previous technology migration events (e.g. the time it actually took moving from GSM to UMTS versus the aggressive forecasts of the GSMA) it is easy to see this prediction as rather optimistic.
MNO challenges and LPWANs
Mobile network operators are challenged by a market with different requirements that have to be satisfied simultaneously. All of that, in a world that now sees connectivity as a commodity, just like electrical power: it is expected to be available whenever it is needed.
Significant investments not only on the radio bearers, but also on the data backbones will be required to support the projected growths in data traffic, generated not only by IoT, but also by all other possible utilizations of mobile broadband (e.g. video streaming).
At a time when MNOs are beginning to seriously consider IoT as a real business opportunity, leaner solutions are already available on the market that can be used today for implementations with short times to market. LPWANs (Low Power Wide Area Network) represent in fact an ideal solution for low-bandwidth, large coverage projects, and thanks to players like LoRa and Sigfox, they are real solutions that can be used today. Chipsets and modules for both technologies are already available from several vendors and, while Sigfox networks are licensed and managed by Sigfox (and therefore area coverage is managed by Sigfox itself), for LoRa it is possible to start building a private LoRa network today using commercially available modules.
Technologies used in both cases promise wide coverage (Sigfox claims to be able to cover up to 40km in open space with a single repeater ) with long battery duration (10 years claimed for LoRa applications ) bundled with data rates that can range from a few hundred bits per second to 50-100 kbit/s for LoRa . As for coverage and market readiness, as mentioned before, hardware modules and software components are already available in both cases and Sigfox is capable of providing its services in 29 countries thanks to agreements with different business partners .
As mentioned in the previous section, 3GPP reacted in 2016 with the release of new standards targeted specifically for the IoT world using licensed spectrum already available to MNOs. While EC-GSM-IOT and LTE-M extend the cellular domain to M2M applications, a dedicated 3GSPP standard for LPWAN, named Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT), has been released in June 2016. The specifications on paper look promising: better data rates than the other solutions, implementation possible by a simple software update on existing LTE eNb nodes and possibility of exploiting the infrastructure of giants MNOs like Vodafone or Deutsche Telekom make NB-IoT extremely appealing.
There is however a crucial factor that will have to be taken in consideration: time.
With the NB-IoT standard just released, commercial applications are not expected to be live before the end of 2017, even if MNOs are making aggressive claims about being ready in early 2017 for live applications . Chipsets and modules are still not available and remote SIM provisioning (using embedded SIM cards for instance) will have to be tested in the field to verify how well it works with small IoT devices.
To further enrich the picture; during 2016 the WiFi Alliance released the highly anticipated 802.11ah standard, designed specifically for IoT applications. While the new standard (also called 802.11 HaLow) promises to combine low power and long ranges, the utilization of the 900 MHz band (also used for GSM) can raise some concerns about possible interference between the two systems. Also in this case, commercial applications are still to become available and the business models that will be proposed, combined with real world performance, will be relevant to the success of this solution.
Studies predict that LPWAN will generate revenues of 27 billion US dollars by 2020  so it is easy to understand that MNOs will be highly motivated to recover lost ground and make a success of MNO-based LPWAN solutions such as NB-IoT . By the time NB-IoT based solutions will be widely available (late 2017 to early 2018) however, even more ground will have been gained by currently available solutions.
To recover the lost ground MNOs will have to make significant investments both in technology and marketing, devising business models that can truly represent a significant competitive advantage, possibly offering differentiated business solutions to different market segments, ranging from raw connectivity to networks operated as a service perhaps integrated with cloud-based computing platforms .
Even if projections of a massive use of cellular technology for IoT in the future are confirmed, it seems clear that MNOs will have to make significant steps in several areas to step up to the challenge:
- Technology more compatible with IoT applications will need to be widely available. Recently released standards go in that direction but commercial deployments risk to be live too late;
- MNOs will therefore have to maintain a continuous momentum on the evolution of their networks and adapt strategies to successfully manage the challenges posed by other competitor technologies like LPWANs;
- MNOs will also have to have their sales and market strategy evolving faster than they have been doing until now: M2M commercial offers will have to be much more common than nowadays;
- Last but not least, security related and network-protection aspects will have to be taken into account: "mass deployment of inefficient, insecure or defective IoT devices on the MNOs' networks"  could represent a significant threat to the availability and safety of mobile networks, especially in critical situations .
We will have therefore to see where technology and market evolutions will bring the MNO-IoT relationship in the near future, with a possible end scenario being cellular technologies used only for specific applications with a large proportion of smart devices using other solutions such as LPWAN .
 Ericsson Mobility Report – https://www.ericsson.com/mobility-report
 GSMA IoT – http://www.gsma.com/connectedliving/mobile-iot-initiative/
 SemTech wireless - LoRa Technology – http://www.semtech.com/wireless-rf/wireless-rf/LoRa-Wireless-Public-Network.pdf
 Semtech LoRa FAQ – http://www.semtech.com/wireless-rf/lora/LoRa-FAQs.pdf
 Sigfox website – https://www.sigfox.com/
 Vodafone to 'Crush' LoRa, Sigfox With NB-IoT – http://www.lightreading.com/iot/vodafone-to-crush-lora-sigfox-with-nb-iot/d/d-id/722882
 LPWA Networks Ecosystem: 2015–2030 – Opportunities, Challenges, Strategies, Industry Verticals & Forecasts, SNS Research
 Huawei NB-IoT whitepaper – http://www.huawei.com/minisite/iot/img/nb_iot_whitepaper_en.pdf
 GSMA IoT Connection Efficiency Guidelines – http://www.gsma.com/connectedliving/gsma-iot-device-connection-efficiency-guidelines/
 Mobile network operators: Overcome IoT challenges using the power of SIM – R. Dewey, http://internetofthingsagenda.techtarget.com/blog/IoT-Agenda/Mobile-network-operators-Overcome-IoT-challenges-using-the-power-of-SIM
 Ericsson Cellular networks for Massive IoT – enabling low power wide area applications – http://www.ericsson.com/res/docs/whitepapers/wp_iot.pdf
Giovanni Perrone has been working in the mobile and Telco domain for more than 12 years, coming from another 10 years spent in the design of digital solutions for renewable energy and industrial automation applications. In the last 10 years he has been working in the post-sales area, specializing in project and program management, earning a PMP certification in 2007 and a CSM one in 2012 and has more than 10 years of experience in project and program management in Telecom, IT and Hi-Tech domains. In parallel to his working activities, he is currently cooperating with the "SMART Engineering Solutions & Technologies (SMARTEST)" Research Centre of the eCampus University (Italy), where he is completing his Master degree in Informatics and Control Automation. He has a Degree in Electronics Engineering and he is currently engaged in activities ranging from research to business development and leadership and project management seminars and workshops through the PMI CIC chapter.
Massimo Vecchio received the Laurea degree in Computer Engineering (Magna cum Laude) from the University of Pisa and the Ph.D. degree in Computer Science and Engineering (with Doctor Europaeus mention) from IMT Lucca Institute for Advanced Studies in 2005 and 2009, respectively. His research background is on computational and artificial intelligence techniques, such as metaheuristics for global optimization and fuzzy logic. During his Ph.D. degree, however, his research interests moved towards power-efficient engineering and application designs for pervasive systems and devices. From October 2008 to March 2010, he worked as a research engineer at INRIA-Saclay (France). Then, he joined the Signal Processing in Communications group at the University of Vigo (Spain) as a post-doctoral researcher. Upon his return to Italy (October 2012), he worked as a senior researcher at CREATE-NET (an ICT research center) within the "Smart Internet of Things (RIoT)" research unit, mainly in the field of Internet of Things devices and resources virtualization. Starting from May 2015, he is an associate professor at the eCampus University (Italy), holding also a course on mobile and embedded systems and heading the "Everything Connected (EC)" research unit of the "SMART Engineering Solutions & Technologies (SMARTEST)" Research Centre. He is the author of one book monograph and co-author of two book chapters, as well as several journal and conference papers.
Subscribe to the Newsletter
Join our free IoT Technical Community and receive our Newsletter.
Calendar of Events
IEEE 5th World Forum on Internet of Things (WF-IoT)
15-18 April 2019
International Conference on Omni-Layer Intelligent Systems (COINS)
5-7 May 2019
Global IoT Summit (GIoTS)
17-21 June 2019
2019 IEEE International Conference on Internet of Things and Intelligence System (IoTaIS)
5-7 November 2019
Call for Papers
IoTIS 2019 Call for Papers
Submission Deadline: 30 May 2019
IEEE Internet of Things Journal