Disruptive tech a hard sell for anxious enterprises – the real challenge for NB-IoT
He-said / she-said; the finger-pointing between the rank and file in the cellular NB-IoT sector is futile, and wrong anyway. So says Adarsh Krishnan, research director at ABI Research, one of the better commentators on the subject. If we are to play the blame game, he says, to explain away the deathly pace of NB-IoT takeup outside of China, then there is a third party to consider: the enterprises themselves. They are just not ready, reckons Krishnan.
Their anxiety is through the roof, he says; already sky-high and rising, through 10 years of financial recession and geopolitical trade crises, before Covid-19 forced the global economy into lockdown. The ongoing pandemic has only made them more wary of ‘disruptive technologies’, he says. The real challenge for ‘massive IoT’, and for the cellular side pushing NB-IoT as the connectivity springboard for it, is to make the technology un-risky, un-scary – un-disruptive.
Krishnan comments: “[The delay] is because of the enterprises – not really the hardware vendors or airtime suppliers. Most of the technology issues, 80-90 percent, have been solved. It is more about demand, and how enterprises want to implement the technology. That is what’s taking longer. Because the whole of the last decade has been uncertain – with financial uncertainty, geopolitical issues, now this pandemic, and all these chip supply issues.
“These have caused anxiety. The supply side can keep churning out great solutions, which can help in lots of ways. But unless enterprises are confident of their own businesses, and certain of their revenues, then they won’t invest to implement them. Unless they have to. And they will be cautious for the next 12-18 months, just to see how the market bounces back [post-pandemic], and how revenues stabilise, before they start to invest in new technology.”
This discussion, in case you missed it, is bubbling up in a new Enterprise IoT Insights report (out next week, check back here) on the state of NB-IoT ‘things’, appraising the cellular industry’s bid for share in the messy ‘massive IoT’ market. Hardware providers claim the fault is with airtime providers, which have had their heads turned by 5G and their brains scrambled by LTE-M. For their money, operators outside of China have failed to get to grips with NB-IoT.
The response from the carrier community is that industrial revolution just takes time. It is an OEM-driven market, after all, says Vodafone, implying its fresh supply of dirt-cheap NB-IoT in 50-odd territories is decently timed to meet rising demand in Europe and North America. Most of the issues – roaming, billing, interoperability – have been fixed, says this counter-narrative. And if we are point-scoring, then who says $5 for hardware goes far enough?
Those are not Vodafone’s words, to be clear; but they are out there, somewhere, whispered on the blustery wind of industrial change. In a straight fight, on hardware availability and pricing, does NB-IoT really promise a knockout against Sigfox, and particularly against LoRaWAN, yet? And, as one sage LinkedIn commentator responded to a post this week, what about a matchup on current-draw, frequency modulation, and developer ecosystems?
But, then, massive IoT is a multi-dimensional head-wreck of a market, where suppliers align uneasily behind warring technologies, growing increasingly paranoid and agitated as they wait for the penny to drop. Krishnan comments: “One side points fingers about the billing and the roaming, and the other side says the hardware still isn’t cheap enough – especially when LoRaWAN and Sigfox are talking about less than $5, and even $1.” There’s the whisper.
Where does his sympathy lie? He probably doesn’t have much, just because it is not his job to; but as Krishnan looks at the market, does he understand one side more than the other? “For me, it is the fault of neither side,” he responds, diplomatically, perhaps. He gets stuck into his argument that a wild 10-year storm has, conversely, created a grim anchorage for tech buyers and a dead calm for tech vendors, and that NB-IoT has simply struggled to catch a sail. There are exceptions, in industries like energy and healthcare, but the general rule is disruptive tech is hard sell for anxious businesses.
He says: “These are brilliant technologies, which enable lots of use cases. But there remains uncertainty about how they pay back – not just in five and 10 years, but in a shorter time. That is the reason the IoT market has not grown as quickly as expected. Its value is clear. This evolution from traditional systems to IoT-enabled systems is inevitable; the focus on sustainability, for enterprises and their products and services, won’t work without tech-backed systems.
“So the viability of IoT is clear, too. The question is about how you implement it more efficiently. That is where the challenge is: how do you transition to these systems, without disruption? Because IoT is described as ‘disruptive technology’. But the market cannot let it disrupt business and derail enterprises. It has to bring rapid gains. Because enterprises have faced great uncertainty, most of the last decade. They do not want another tech-driven uncertainty.”
He adds: “The question is how to make digital change more seamless – so it is as least-disruptive as possible. These technologies are quite radical in how they change a business. But you don’t want this change to bring problems as well. That is the balance to strike in the implementation, and what the industry is trying to solve. Tech providers have been pushing their solutions, but not necessarily hearing what enterprises want and fear.”