IoT: a Fork in the Roadmap for Mobile Networks

Mobile operators, which for nearly two decades have focused their network investments primarily on bandwidth and speed, are at something of an impasse as they contemplate the effects of Internet of Things (IoT) devices and services. 

As Heavy Reading analyst Steve Bell pointed out earlier this year, the challenge is that while IoT is seen as a future growth market for mobile operators, the majority of IoT requirements—low bandwidth, low data, low power, low cost devices—are in conflict with voice, video, and other real-time, multimedia services. How can one network serve both? 

Some operators might seem to be concluding that it’s not possible, and are continuing their investment in real-time, bandwidth-intensive services—even going so far as as to re-farm 2G and 3G spectrum into the 4G space, which is much more efficient for traditional voice delivery. For example, in the U.S., AT&T plans to shut down its GSM network and 2G machine-to-machine business by the end of this year.

Customers that use 2G devices and services need to avoid frequent upgrades; they want technology that will last 10-20 years, and will obtain that from low-power wide-area (LPWA) companies like Ingenu and Sigfox, unless mobile operators quickly find a way to stay in the IoT game. 

Bell noted that the mobile industry is now working hard to avoid losing out in the IoT market, including its intense efforts (in collaboration with 3GPP, chipset vendors, and network vendors) to get the NB-IoT compromise standard pushed out as soon as possible. The hope is to create a cost-effective solution to counter LPWA competitive threats. 

Mobile operators success in IoT will depend on a variety of strategy, including rapidly virtualizing their networks to accommodate an increasingly complex collection of technologies and services. An increase in hybrid networks (traditional cellular, and non-traditional technologies) is likely. Bell predicted that IoT competition will heat up as non-cellular players (cable companies, cloud providers, fixed-line players, etc.) enter the scene. 

All of this illustrates the growing importance of both virtualization and a comprehensive mobile network instrumentation layer to efficiently monitor and manage resources for very diverse services. New IoT and multimedia services are entering the equation all the time, putting a strain on networks typically designed to optimally deliver only a few, similar, types of services. 

Imagine, if you will, a multi-lane highway previously for use by cars only. Suddenly, it is opened up for trucks, bicycles, and pedestrians. To avoid chaos, there has to be some way to intelligently direct traffic according to its type and the lanes available. Control is only possible with visibility into what’s happening, and that’s where instrumentation comes in—
the equivalent of installing web cams on overhead bridges, lamp-posts, and other locations along the road, feeding data into a central control room where decisions are made day-by-day, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute about how to best direct traffic. 

It’s not possible to say yet what the IoT competitive landscape will look like in 3-5 years, but one thing is for sure: it will be an interesting journey for all involved!