Mobile: Networks for All Things?

Infographic Is Mobile Always the Best Tool for the Job?

Can mobile networks be repurposed for the entire Internet of Things?

When I was a kid there used to be a series on TV called Boys from the Black Stuff. The protagonist Yosser was constantly on the hunt for work and his repeated refrain was “Gizza’ job!  I can do that!”  It became a bit of a meme back in the 80s.  When I listen to discussions about mobile networks and future applications, I often remember this phrase.

A new era is looming as everything becomes connected to form The Internet of Things, redefining our relationship with products, creating incredible new capabilities, bringing security to the fore and revolutionizing industries. Connectivity has a special role as a key enabler in the overall IoT architecture, to connect products to the cloud with appropriate levels of reliability, resilience, security and bandwidth depending on the application.

Figure 1 – Connectivity in the New Technology Stack[1]

Appropriate is the key point here.  Different applications can require radically different communication layers.  For example vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications require lightning fast reaction times enabled by low latency.  CCTV monitoring requires high-bandwidth in real-time.  Remote sensing needs low power consumption, low bitrate and high availability.  Emergency services networks need resilience, high availability, omnipresent coverage and video bandwidth.

Repurposing what was intended as a voice, web and video communications network for smartphones is not always as easy as it seems.  Standardised and proprietary adaptations can be made to the mobile network to enable new applications.  There are many well-known bolt-on technologies.  Narrowband-LTE enables better coverage, shorter delay, lower device cost and reduced power consumption.  Edge computing is used for secure local communication, faster device-to-device communication, distributed content delivery and computational offloading. Mesh networks are used for cellular coverage extension, high availability and low bandwidth applications.

Some of these adaptations are simple to implement, whilst others are more complex. Mobile network operators are already relatively complex organisations, with networks that already comprise three overlapping generations of technology from 2G to 3G and 4G.  Converged operators have even more to deal with. The mobile industry is already trying to deal with sharp falls in revenue growth whilst delivering significant increases in data volume demand. Improving profitability will, to a large degree, rely as much on eliminating complexity as it does on finding new revenue streams.

New bolt-on technologies creates complexity with new processes, organisational change, people development, dilution of focus, new vendor relationships and new channels to market all driving cost in different ways.  At what point does it become cheaper and more efficient to purpose-build a new network? In other words, under what circumstances does the cost of additional mobile network complexity exceed the cost of building a dedicated new network? There is a point beyond which layering on new capabilities to a mobile network does not make commercial sense and a dedicated network is the way to go. Additionally, while duplicating networks may seem more expensive it does offer the advantage of risk mitigation by not putting all your eggs in one basket.

Figure 2 – The cost of complexity increases as the application becomes more specialised, which at some point may exceed the cost of deploying a dedicated network

Table 1 – Some projects adapting mobile networks to new applications

So the question is when to opt for a new technology layer on an existing cellular network and when to plump for simple dedicated network.  There are many key things to consider. Can the cost of adaption be accurately predicted?  Has it been successfully done before?  What are the soft changes needed in the organisation? Is the proposed adaptation a proven technology with simple interfaces or a leap forward with multiple links to numerous vendors in the existing network ecosystem?  Above all it is unwise to assume that the adaptation of an existing mobile network is always the answer.

[1] How Smart, Connected Products Are Transforming Companies, Michael E. PorterJames E. Heppelmann, Harvard Business Review, October 2015.

[2] Public Accounts Committee – Upgrading Emergency Service Communications – Recall inquiry, 21 April 2017

[3] Smart meters: what would it take to stop the national rollout juggernaut?, Engineering & Technology, May 2017

[4] The clock is ticking on the energy market’s smart meter revolution, The Daily Telegraph, 17/03/2017

[5] Mobile network operators and SBB to improve mobile phone reception in regional trains, Swisscom, 2/9/2014