The IoT: Evolving from novelty to reality

IIoT, market research
Consumer IoT is one of the six core event themes at Mobile World Congress Americas.

This article is part of our Mobile World Congress Americas preview coverage. Other posts in this series highlight this increasingly global industry, policy, hardware and analyst perspectives.

IoT tech matters, but the "gee whiz" phase is moving to practical, business model concerns.

Like previous trade shows, this year’s inaugural Mobile World Congress Americas (MWCA) in San Francisco will have plenty of emphasis on IoT. The big difference this year? Both Verizon and AT&T have launched their nationwide LTE Cat-M networks, bringing a new set of competition for all of the low-power wide area network (LPWAN) players hoping to get a slice of the pie.

While European operators have been more focused on Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT)/Cat-NB1, many operators are expected to deploy both the NB-IoT and Cat-M standards-based technologies. Verizon, AT&T, Vodafone, Vodacom, Deutsche Telekom, China Unicom, Etisalat, LG Uplus and KT have all launched IoT networks using either LTE-M/Cat-M1 or NB-IoT/Cat-NB1, and other operators have plans to launch later this year or next, according to the Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA).

One of the six core event themes this year at MWCA 2017 is Consumer IoT, with panels devoted to subjects such as investing in the IoT, and there will be IoT talks on the show floor. The talks provide a platform for thought leaders to share their ideas about the wider societal impact of IoT, such as overcoming climate change, disease and traffic congestion. Arrow, Ruckus, TomTom Maps, Datora, Inmarsat, Kore and PacketZoom are among the companies participating in those talks.

Trade shows typically are a time to feature unique use cases, and major vendors are expected to do the same here. Smart water meters, air quality monitors, parking solutions and even pet tracking are some of the use cases recently tested or commercialized.

But applications like tracking cattle and bicycles are fairly well known. In fact, in China, Mobike rentals have been so popular that the problem now is bikes piling up like haystacks. So analysts aren’t expecting to be dazzled by brand new IoT use cases at MWCA.

“We’ve been looking at this for a couple of years so I don’t expect to be surprised by new use cases,” said Joe Madden, principal analyst at Mobile Experts. “I think we’re reaching a step now where it’s more about bringing costs down, making things interoperable between vendors, between different systems, how do you analyze the data. I think we’re getting to a more interesting phase of IoT where it’s not just about ‘gee whiz.’ It’s more going to be about making it practical and going from the early adopters to more mainstream.”

Both Verizon and AT&T are buckling down on IoT, and there’s a good reason for that: They have to. Considering the market is saturated with smartphones and that there’s increasing pressure on pricing—much of it caused by T-Mobile—AT&T and Verizon have to look at what’s next. The IoT is one of the answers to that “what’s next?” question, Madden said. It’s a way for them to create new revenue of the kind they like: high-dollar value for every kilobit of data that gets sent. Right now, “they need to find a way to pump up the dollars per byte,” he said.

Peter Jarich, chief analyst of global telecom and IT for GlobalData, agreed. As much as the discussion around Cat-M vs. NB-IoT vs. proprietary LPWA technology issues is important, the business model and value chain components are probably more important, he said.

Ultimately, he said, “whatever the technology, getting into verticals will require specific expertise and integration skills.” Verizon and AT&T are already working on that, but the sheer breadth of the IoT opportunities means they’ll all need to rely on integrators—putting everyone (including proprietary vendors) on the same footing. “The difference then becomes one of coverage and pricing with pricing advantages (hopefully) pulled in thanks to higher margin add-ons like analytics, app development, security services, etc.,” Jarich said.