The Internet of Things (IoT) is simultaneously the most exciting and the dullest thing about telecom. Exciting because putting Internet connectivity into billions of objects, from toilet bowls and toothbrushes to fighter jets and factory gear, conjures up futuristic visions and nightmare scenarios about Chinese cyber attacks. Dull because today's reality is more like the Internet of Very Few Things (IoVFT) and negligible sales.
That much is evident in the numbers provided by Vodafone, a service provider that has put its back into the IoT business. The effort shows, to some extent: IoT connections on its various networks rose to 85 million in March, from 68 million a year earlier and 54 million in March 2017. If IoT connections were people, Vodafone -- which today provides mobile services for more than 100 million humans in Europe -- would be cackling on its way to the bank.
But they are not people, and 85 million is a long way off the tens of billions that global service providers envisage in the next few years. Revenues have not been growing at the same double-digit rate, and they are merely a bit of garnish on Vodafone's plate. IoT sales came to €783 million ($870 million) in the last fiscal year, contributing about 2% of the group total.
Table 1: Vodafone's IoT Business in Summary
|IoT connections (millions)||38||54||68||85|
|IoT revenues (€M)||N/A||697||747||783|
|IoT revenues per connection (€)||N/A||12.91||10.99||9.21|
|Group revenues (€M)||40,973||47,631||46,571||43,666|
|IoT revenues as percentage of total||N/A||1%||2%||2%|
Despite trumpeting NB-IoT, a 4G technology tweaked for the IoT, the industry insists that future 5G systems will make a massive difference (literally using the word massive to describe 5G's IoT promise). Yet the real problem is on the commercial side. Many organizations have still not given much thought to IoT and how it could help. Most telcos are geared up to provide smartphone services, not support critical factory equipment. Cellular service prices remain too high, in some cases. Buying a service that works across multiple markets and networks is not straightforward.
On that last point, Vodafone is now hoping to make a difference through a new roaming partnership with AT&T, the giant US operator. Before the end of the year, customers using NB-IoT will be able to run services over an area covered by AT&T's network in the US and Vodafone's infrastructure in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK.
The arrangement is clearly pitched at companies with transatlantic operations, and the demand is there, according to the operators. "More and more of our enterprise customers are launching IoT applications across multiple countries," said Chris Penrose, the senior vice president of AT&T's important-sounding advanced mobility and enterprise solutions business, in a prepared statement. "Working with Vodafone, we can offer our customers simplified deployments to help scale their IoT plans across the US and Europe."
As Vodafone points out, the latest deal builds on an earlier agreement -- signed in February -- that allowed customers to roam between LTE-M networks in the Netherlands and the US. LTE-M is another 4G technology bashed into IoT shape, although it supports slightly faster connections than NB-IoT and seems more appropriate if the connected gadgets are moving around (think fleet management, for example).
The impact of these arrangements is unlikely to become clear until next year, when Vodafone reports results for the fiscal year ending in March 2020. AT&T has never had much to say about IoT performance in its own earnings statements and its last contained not a single IoT reference. A question about the number of connections it supports had not been answered at the time of publication, although it was put to AT&T outside normal business hours.
Its launch of NB-IoT happened as recently as April, however, and it has been unwilling to shed much light on progress since then. "We have some things in the works, but nothing I can share publicly yet," an AT&T spokesperson told Light Reading just a few days ago.
IoT could use some positive news, though. Telco C-level executives seem increasingly focused on convergence and the smartphone business as they roll out the first wave of 5G services. Massive machine-type communications remains one corner of a 5G triangle that turns up in every 5G presentation to illustrate the potential use cases. Anything that helps take those out of the trade show and into real life must be welcomed.
- The Wait for NB-IoT in the US
- Sprint (Finally) Enters the NB-IoT Business
- AT&T & Verizon: All Quiet on Narrowband IoT
- The Long Road to 5G IoT Reality
- IoT boom won't pay off for mobile operators
— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading