Vodafone Business last week used the Mobile World Congress Los Angeles trade show to elaborate on several of its U.S.-based initiatives, including a new NB-IoT roaming deal with AT&T, the launch of its IoT lab in Redwood City, California, and the arrival of its Invent program in the Americas.
Over the past couple of years, Vodafone has been rolling out NB-IoT networks, and typically the early use cases were around fixed assets, like auto or gas meters. Increasingly, OEMs are looking for interoperability between networks, with the biggest markets being China, the U.S. and Europe, according to Phil Skipper, head of IoT business development at Vodafone Business.
In the U.S., “what we’ve done is we’ve created this roaming relationship between ourselves and AT&T,” he said on the sidelines of MWCLA.
Vodafone's work in the U.S. is designed to give OEMs the confidence to design NB-IoT into their products and to start opening the market for the next set of applications for IoT, which are around things that move rather than things that stay in one place. One example is a pallet, which may be used to move high-end goods but it's typically the kind of thing the owner wants to get back.
Back in February at MWC Barcelona, Vodafone announced an agreement with China Mobile, whereby the two big global players agreed to resell each other’s services for the first time. Vodafone’s IoT customers get access to China Mobile IoT SIMs for deployments in China, and China Mobile customers get access to Vodafone’s global IoT SIM and management platform outside China.
“A lot of this is about doing the difficult countries as well as the easy ones,” Skipper said. It’s one thing to do the easy countries in Europe, but “you’re not worth your salt unless you can do India, China, Brazil, Turkey.”
Granted, geopolitics certainly affects the business, both on the buy side in terms of what’s allowed to be traded with certain countries, as well as the complex regulatory environments inside of those countries.
“We do a lot of work in terms of making sure that we’re able to adapt to changes in regulation easily,” he said. That’s one of the big benefits of being a licensed player in IoT versus unlicensed, especially in areas of political volatility. Because it’s a telco, Vodafone already has the infrastructure for security and massive network rollouts; an unlicensed player needs to fund all of that and learn how to work within various governments.
With regard to the roaming deal with AT&T, Vodafone already has done quite a bit of work with AT&T in the past, including a deal in the automotive space that was announced earlier this year. AT&T and Vodafone Business are collaborating to deliver consistent connected car solutions and experiences for customers across their combined footprints in North America, Europe and Africa.
In Redwood City, Vodafone's IoT Open Lab will give customers the ability to test IoT solutions using augmented reality, geo-mapping and machine learning before they move to the deployment stage. The Vodafone Business App Invent Platform is an end-to-end IoT application development platform designed to simplify IoT application implementation, serving as a launch pad for new IoT applications.
“The U.S. is somewhat unique for us because we have an operation in a country where we don’t have a network,” Skipper added.
But many American organizations that have both a domestic and international business want to be served out of the U.S., even though much of their product ends up in other parts of the world. That gives Vodafone an entry into fulfilling NB-IoT connectivity, but also introduces Invent into the market, which makes it easy to built IoT applications and then connect them. That’s becoming increasingly important as the market moves from multi-national corporations to the mid-market, he said.
Larger multinationals have the means to try and fail in IoT, and try again; the smaller companies can’t afford to get it wrong, so having an established partner like Vodafone along for the ride gives them more confidence and stability.
There’s a part of the market which is too small for the big entities like Azure, but “it’s sort of too risky to use a local body shop around the corner,” he said. “We’re looking for those applications which align on mobile, so that’s a good reason to talk to us. They’re IoT-based, and of a certain size—with Vodafone at the center gives them confidence,” and they can be served locally in their own language and currency, he said.