BICS looks to build bridges between telecoms operators and the IoT market
International carrier services company BICS has gone from a useful clearing house for airtime to a close strategic partner for communications providers of every type. Importantly, the company can bring the rangy ‘internet of things’ (IoT) market into line for the mobile operator community, as they furnish it with specialist low-power and high-bandwidth networks, reckons Mikaël Schachne, vice president of mobility solutions at the Brussels-based outfit.
Schachne has been with the company for 18 years, and seen its development, in parallel with the market’s traffic profile, and as new players have joined, notably mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs), and it has connected with players in adjacent sectors, including digital service providers and the broad IoT market.
Today, its business is split three ways: between the network itself, selling wholesale capacity and transmission services; the communications on top, enabling the inter-operator exchange of voice and messaging; and mobility and roaming, linking operators internationally for seamless, cross-border connectivity.
Its role has shifted with each generation of mobile technology, and the services these have enabled. BICS also scored well with the rush of MVNO launches in Europe, in the middle of last decade, in charge of their own core networks, yet unable to play alone with the rest of the industry. BICS developed a “very specific portfolio” for MVNOs, and retains a 90 per cent share of the MVNO wholesale and inter-connect market.
Importantly, it has also bridged the divide with digital providers in the past decade, facilitating connections to the mobile set for large web properties, mainly for two-factor SMS authentications. It has been a fruitful avenue, which saw it pit-stop in late 2017 to pick up US mobile identity provider TeleSign, responsible for two-way authentications for about 500 internet companies, for a cool $230 million.
“Our footprints are extremely complementary,” says Schachne.
Its core function as a ‘roaming hub’ — the third of its three-pronged business — has grown every type of service, and every type of provider interacting with mobile networks.
The international roaming market comprises fewer than a dozen players; most run as international carrier divisions of incumbent and tier-one operator brands. But BICS — with ownership shared between Proximus, Swisscom and MTN — is the biggest of them all, interconnecting with about 500 operators, and carrying about 25 per cent of worldwide roaming traffic, by its own estimates.
“We are facilitating not just the technical relationship but the commercial relationship between operators, acting as kind of aggregator for roaming,” he says. “We are facilitating global connectivity for any companies that need direct access to all those MNOs.”
Its roaming proposition has exploded further with the irresistible growth of the IoT sector, and connected machines travelling in and out of markets. It is seeking to fuel IoT players in every sphere, including vertical markets just starting on the road, and bridge the gap to seamless roaming.
“We play a role to establish reliable connectivity — so every vertical can access every place in world through mobile connectivity, and manufacturers can make a device in one part of the world that will connect and work on wireless in another,” says Schachne.
“Many companies want reliable connectivity around world without having to establish technical and commercial relationships with every operator in world. The infrastructure we have established over the last 20 years for person-to-person communications can be reused for machine-to-machine communications.”
The connectivity market for IoT solutions is expanding, with the rapid rollout of LTE-M and NB-IoT solutions already, and the first deployments of 5G, which will come to support of massive-scale IoT communications in the medium term. “A single cell will bring connectivity to millions of ‘things’, potentially.”
Operators in every market, including Europe, are doubling-down on LPWA networking technologies, with twin rollouts of LTE-M and NB-IoT common. On 5G, Asia and the US are “moving forward fast”, he says.
But criticism of the slow pace of European 5G rollouts is not fair, he suggests; it does not take into proper consideration the fragmentation of the market, compared with the vast territories commanded by many Asian and American operators.
“There is not the same perception of an entire region moving together, at pace, on 5G or IoT; instead progress is being made by smaller players, moving independently.”
He’s not going easy, as a Europe-based player in the networks game, he makes clear. “Yes, we have a Brussels headquarters, but we work globally; Telesign has a head office in LA,” he says. This year will see the playing field levelled, and the late-bloomers make up some ground on the fast-starters. BICS is betting on international roaming market for 5G by the end of the year, anyway.
“We expect mobile carriers in Europe to catch up in 2019,” he says.
Opportunity knocks, at every door. “For a player like us, there is a chance to facilitate connectivity between all of these players, each with their own specific reach and coverage, quality and commercial terms. We will be a bridge for all of that, between the device manufacturers and IoT service providers on one side, and the wireless providers on the other,” says Schachne.
As well as bridging arrangements for mobile operators, virtual operators, and digital service providers, BICS has also developed a range of offers for IoT verticals, it says, each with different needs. It is packaging up anywhere-airtime, wholesale, for their various devices, many with embedded SIMs (eSIMs) inside.
Schachne is not going into detail, here. But he highlights the differing requirements of the logistics and payment industries, as an example, with the former prioritising international roaming to track assets in flux, and the latter making a virtue of signal reliability, where terminals always connect, and select an alternative network in the event the first one fails.
“Sometimes it’s about the breadth of the coverage, and moving between countries; sometimes it’s about the reliability of the coverage, and the facility to access multiple radio signals,” he says.
He gives another example, of an IoT gateway in factory or warehouse, collecting video feeds from security cameras, and forwarding them to an edge set-up or the cloud.
“Those gateway manufacturers cannot start doing deep commercial and technical integration with every single mobile operator around the world. They need to be sure the connectivity works, everywhere, from the moment the device ships out of the factory,” he says.
BICS status as a clearing house for mobile traffic has shifted, reckons Schachne. “We have gone from straight customer/supplier deals to more strategic partnerships, geared around growing their revenue streams, for all the players in the ecosystem. That’s where we see ourselves.”
He circles in again, on the BICS message to the operator community. “These verticals want connectivity and global reach, but they also want simplicity. We can help the mobile operators open up their networks to all of these new devices, and facilitate billing and settlements with these new enterprises and manufacturers.”