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The IIoT interview: “We want as many IoT devices as possible,” says Verizon

US carrier Verizon wants to make it easier for enterprises to launch IoT services on its LTE-M network. Its new ThingSpace Ready programme is designed to help developers and enterprises build, certify and manage IoT devices more easily and cheaply. Enterprise IoT Insights chats with the company’s global head of IoT, Steve Szabo, about the three Ps of IoT connectivity: performance, partnership and price.

The ‘internet of things’ (IoT) market is highly fragmented and the job to launch new enterprise IoT services is convoluted even for experienced developers in the cellular market. For new entrants, seeking to capitalise on the latest digital technologies, the task is fraught and complex. And yet the great promise of these technological pyrotechnics to transform industry hinges entirely on cellular first-timers getting it right.

“There’s a large community that has never used cellular before. For many of our traditional partners, engaged anyway in the process of CDMA to LTE to 5G, the move to CAT-M and NB-IoT is just part of the natural evolution. But for most others that want to go that way, this is very new,” explains Steve Szabo, head of global IoT products and solutions at Verizon.

“That’s where the ThingSpace Ready programme comes in – to build confidence among non-traditional equipment manufacturers, to say, ‘hey, there’s a whole brave new world out there’. Because a vacuum cleaner company, say, has the chance to drive new revenue and use cases by leveraging cellular. We want to take away some of that heavy lifting.”

Components and design

Verizon was the first US carrier to launch a nationwide LTE-based IoT network a year ago, backing LTE CAT-M (LTE-M) as its preferred connectivity technology. The company’s ThingSpace IoT platform, launched in 2015, is a cornerstone of its broader IoT proposition.

“It is an umbrella service that enables us to provide connectivity on our network, not just in the US, but globally, as well as services on top, such as the ability to pull data, provide security, and manage devices from a diagnostics and performance perspective. It also allows us to provide software updates at module and application level, and works as a horizontal platform to support all the verticals Verizon is invested in,” explains Szabo.

The new ThingSpace Ready alliance makes available cheaper components and design services to IoT developers. It also offers free certification, credits for device activations, and access to platform tools for functions like billing, connectivity management, and diagnostic support. The point is to simplify development and expedite deployment of IoT services.

“It’s a burdensome process if you haven’t done it before – and even if you have, and you’re just migrating to the latest technology, it’s not easy. It takes many vendors and partnerships.”

The Verizon programme is not just for new entrants but for old familiars too, seeking to migrate machine and telematics services from old-legacy and new-standard cellular technologies, including 2G and LTE, onto more appropriate contemporary low-power wide-area (LPWA) techniques like LTE-M. The fragmented nature of the IoT market makes the promise of simplification even more compelling. “It takes the hurdles away,” says Szabo.

“ThingSpace Ready takes components that are critical to jump-start IoT projects, and to get companies into the cellular space, and packages them up. We’re there, for you, every step of the way – on that journey from non-connected to cellular-connected.”

Feedback and partnerships

Verizon, like every traditional mobile operator, has built up a considerable base of connected ‘things,’ beyond smartphones and tablets. The company saw its revenues from IoT based services climb 13 per cent in the first quarter, compared with a year ago, almost double the rate of growth across all of its operations. “Well over 30 million devices are processed through the ThingSpace platform today,” says Szabo.

Its ThingSpace Ready platform is only a couple of months old, however. The company has effectively mapped its extended IoT ecosystem by polling partners, already running IoT services on its network, and keeping a critical tally of their preferred suppliers. “We’ve asked them who they work, and they’ve given us names,” explains Szabo.

“We took feedback and cut partnerships. We saw consistency around the partners coming through the funnel. If you went through the normal channels, all these things would be done at some point anyway. This ties things together, in an elegant way, and puts our name behind it, so you know what you produce will work on our network.”

The result is like a menu of pre-approved component parts, comprising chipsets, modules and SIMs, alongside design support. Qualcomm’s MDM9206 LTE is the default IoT chipset platform. Quectel, Sequans and u-blox have enrolled as module makers. SIM provider G+D Mobile Security has signed up. Design houses Bittium and Mobilogix are also involved.

It is not prescriptive, he notes. “We have three or four, and a fifth coming down the road. Take your pick; they are all certified to work with Verizon. If you look at some of our competitors, they have one module – if you don’t use it, you can’t use the programme. We take the complexity out, and provide choice.”

The New York City based carrier runs an open development certification programme for developers that have already worked up solutions with partners, or have a preference for off-the-menu makers, to gain ThingSpace certification. “If it’s not in our portfolio, they can certainly go ahead get that certification,” he says.

The challenge for an IoT solution provider migrating his service onto Verizon’s new LTE-M network is to maintain performance across the switch-over. “By certifying all of that, not just with Verizon, but with the chipset maker, the module maker, the SIM provider, we are just making lives easier,” says Szabo.

Time-to-market could be reduced by anywhere from a third, he suggests. “Instead of working through all those issues, they could deploy in three-to-six months, rather than six-to-nine.” Verizon is offering 100 design hours with Bittium and Mobilogix as part of the scheme. “A lot of folks get choked up in the design process – that work is critical, and the support we’re offering is unique,” comments Szabo.

“There are a lot of folks that do industrial design work, but there aren’t that many that take cellular modules and put antennas in, and make it look elegant, and don’t compromise any of the service capabilities of the device. We pick partners that are top-of-the-line, with experience in cellular, but which are also doing things in lots of different parts of a the very fragmented IoT market.”

Pricing and performance

Verizon’s IoT data plans look more complex than its rivals’, with the option of three sorts of ‘share group’ plans, offering between 200KB and 10GB of data for between $2 and $80 per month, but may well be welcomed by the complex IoT market. Verizon is offering a $1.50 rebate credit on every device that connects to its network, as well.

“In IoT space, that’s huge, and it adds up if you’re putting volumes on there.” The sums look increasingly competitive. The price of LTE-M modules has dipped below the $10 mark; Verizon is offering them for $6.50, excluding the SIM cost and the activation credit. “We are very excited of the price point we have,” says Szabo.

It might be noted Sigfox modules have fallen to less than $1 per unit, meanwhile, but momentum is building behind licensed cellular LPWA technologies, and the latest predictions reckon NB-IoT and LTE-M will capture more than 55 per cent of new LPWA connections within five years, even as the market grows by 53 per cent per year, with most growth among public LPWA networks.

Szabo brings the pricing discussion back to one of performance and partnership. “We don’t want to be the cheapest; we pride ourselves on having the best network out there, and for everything that goes with that. We want to build a strong ecosystem – for folks that want to get into cellular, and for folks that want to make the leap from legacy cellular technology. ThingSpace Ready provides that,” he says.

The traditional cellular market is keen to branch out, of course, and horizontally aligned IoT technologies provide a means for it to plug into sundry vertical markets, stimulate industrial change, and develop new revenues for both sides. But the technology is new, and the pieces are in flux; ThingSpace Ready is one of a number of initiatives that seeks to make cellular IoT adoption simpler for enterprises.

Swedish telecoms vendor Ericsson has an alternative ‘accelerator’ programme, offering a shop window for pre-approved IoT components and a streamlined way to launch IoT services; it says it wants to keep its contents sparse and its partners few, with a focus on quality.

Verizon’s is a developing proposition, which will morph with its connectivity portfolio. Szabo says there are at least two more module makers in the wings, rather focused on the industrial market, but maintains Verizon will expand its partner programme in a deliberate fashion, reflecting also its offer of NB-IoT, 5G and mobile edge computing (MEC).

“The whole point is how to help people get into the cellular space, and put more devices into the cellular space. We want to encourage folks to adopt cellular. But I am running this programme like a product, and it will expand. It’s LTE-M today, but there will come a point where we start building out the portfolio in the NB-IoT space, because these are along lead times, and consider what’s happening in 5G and MEC.”

He adds: “This is not some kind of promotional effort, where we have just bundled together a couple of partners. We are in it for the long-haul. We want as many devices on our network as possible.”

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