Cellular service isn’t purely about ubiquitous connectivity. Network operators strive to find additional revenue streams which capitalize on their communication services. They’ve lost the battle to keep the Internet to themselves – almost every service today apart from voice is provided by someone else, over the top. Nick Johnson of ip.access shares his views on how they might fight and win greater value through IoT, presence and location – combined with Small Cells.
What strategies do you see network operators taking to expand their scope of business?
The primary business of network operators today is clearly providing excellent voice and data mobile services – truly ubiquitous coverage and capacity. That can be extended outside consumer and business use, such as replacing proprietary First Responder networks. Examples include EE in the UK superseding TETRA with LTE, and in the US where FirstNet plan to rollout a nationwide LTE public safety network.
We’ve also seen mergers and acquisitions in recent years which combine both fixed and mobile network operations, enabling quad-play bundles. Examples include BT buying EE, Vodafone Group acquiring various assets throughout Europe and elsewhere (You Broadband in India last year). Another strategy is to expand into media and content where the $109 Billion deal for AT&T to acquire Time Warner is an obvious example.
For the wireless industry, the Internet of Things (IoT) is the next major battleground and networks have been formulating their strategies for years. The choice between many competing air interfaces is complex and chaotic but I think cellular-IoT stands to win out long-term, given the huge critical mass of the licensed operator community behind it.
But why do we, a dyed-in-the-wool small cell provider, give a hoot about IoT? Everyone says that Cellular IoT is a macro-network play, given the improved link-budgets that come with the technology, but it’s not as simple as that. Cellular holds the promise of ubiquitous indoor and outdoor coverage but will need to be supplemented by small cells.
How does LTE support IoT?
There are two long term LTE standards related to IoT: Cat M1 and NB-IoT. These are both FDD and are not supported by TD-LTE mode, so can’t be used in the 2.3 or 3.5GHz bands. Operators that I’ve spoken to see both co-existing on their networks and being used for different applications. It’s not a battle where one or other will dominate in the long term.
Small Cells augment wide area coverage
Even with the improved performance of NB-IoT and Cat M1, these signals can’t reach deep inside every building or basement. There will be a need to supplement coverage with small cells that also support these standards. Commercial products aren’t available today but ip.access plans to embed both Cat M1 and NB-IoT capability into their standard Enterprise Small Cells in due course.
Providing the connectivity for IoT isn’t enough of itself. Presence and location tracking add substantial value and are essential for many applications. While GPS is often used in our smartphones today, it’s not viable for long lasting low power IoT devices found deep inside buildings with no clear sight of the sky. The network must also provide a position finding capability that is both energy efficient and of high resolution.
This presents a larger commercial prize for those who can provide centralized and co-ordinated management and analytics for these systems. There are various Over-The-Top solution providers that aim to cope with most of the competing IoT connectivity standards. But a closer involvement with presence and location could provide a unique advantage.
Presence and IoT provide micro-proximity services
The flowchart above illustrates how presence information can be securely captured and enriched with information to provide near-realtime data and summary reports. This combination of identity, location/presence and connectivity provides an advantage over localized or proprietary solutions.
A caring, sharing network
Resource sharing may be seen by some as a “pinko-liberal” European habit, firmly to be discouraged, but it has a long and distinguished pedigree in many international operations from code-sharing airlines to cloud computing centres. There are some situations where exclusively owning and operating assets makes best business sense – establishing clear differentiation and branding. At the same time, scenarios where standalone operation is less viable justify a shared approach for the commercial benefit of all parties.
It seems paradoxical then that spectrum is licensed in such an exclusive manner, with each Mobile Network Operator paying billions of dollars for exclusive use of a few MHz of spectrum. While it provides a guarantee of quality, it sets a limit on the capacity of the network – since once it’s full, it’s full – you can’t borrow some from your neighbour and pay it back later. In the jargon, you’ve “de-trunked” your spectrum. You can’t treat it as one “trunk road” down which all your traffic can pass. The exclusive license model divides the road into lots of parallel minor roads. When one road is congested, you can’t divert traffic onto another. It’s supposed to be a source of competition – encouraging Mobile Operators to buy enough spectrum for their needs, or face the consequences. But the reality is that it stifles competition, by preventing operators from buying capacity to avoid rush-hour congestion. The end result is that the consumer suffers.
Sharing is the only way to ensure ubiquitous service viable for all parties
This is why spectrum sharing initiatives, such as CBRS in the US, and the DECT Guard Band in Europe are so important. They set out a framework for operators to share the spectrum resource in a much more flexible and efficient way. With the ip.access Viper2020™ platform, resources can be shared between operators according to an SLA, which allows you to overbook your allocation during peak periods, and pay it back later – by returning the favour in spectrum, or in cash. The converse of this argument is also true. By forcing operators to use only their own spectrum, it forces them to deploy their own infrastructure even when the commercials don’t support it. Where spectrum sharing improves the network performance in busy places, it also makes it cheaper to operate where the traffic may not be so high.
This is the relevance for IoT – where the ARPU for an IoT sensor may be a dollar or two, you need the cheapest infrastructure model you can find – and that means sharing, and that means Viper2020.
The three sided winning combination
In-building systems can provide connectivity, presence and IoT capabilities to all users, regardless of their home network operator. ip.access VIPER2020 platform is primarily designed for neutral host organisations to provide that common capability, shared and open to allcomers.
The most difficult areas to reach using NB-IoT/Cat M1 will be in these dark, deep recesses of buildings. Ubiquitous coverage of those areas won’t be feasible for any individual operator to achieve, but they could come close by supplementing their wide area coverage with in-building small cells. Such in-building systems can be individually deployed by operators themselves or by third party neutral hosts. In both scenarios they can be shared with other operators to offset costs and widen access for all users, as is frequently the case for DAS deployments today.
Furthermore, collating and aggregating analytics data for each individual property that includes traffic from all network users is much more valuable to the building owners than sampling data from only one network. This is what Wi-Fi tries to achieve but only gives a partial picture because fewer users now have Wi-Fi enabled when away from home, and the “MAC randomization” feature introduced in modern smartphones undermines even that.
This means that future small cells need to incorporate NB-IoT/Cat M1 capability including location and presence. A centralized platform to co-ordinate and route data, location and presence information further enhances the solution.
For more information about ip.access VIPER2020, visit their website or meet in person at booth 7C60 at Mobile World Congress.
Nick will also be participating in an upcoming ThinkSmallCell webinar on Wednesday 22 March. More details and registration here.