IoT Strategies

IoT Startup Actility to Add 3GPP Support in 2016

Internet of Things (IoT) software company Actility plans to launch a product that will support 3GPP-based technology this year, Light Reading has learned.

The French startup has so far dedicated its efforts to the rollout of networks based on LoRa, a low-power, wide-area network (LPWAN) technology that uses unlicensed spectrum, but has always insisted it is "agnostic" when it comes to connectivity options.

Actility 's Thingpark platform essentially provides OSS and BSS functionality for IoT deployments and could be used to support networks based on 3GPP standards and running over licensed spectrum as soon as next year, according to Mike Mulica, who joined Actility as CEO in May.

NB-IoT, a cellular-industry answer to LPWA, was recently included in the 3GPP's Release 13 and has received strong backing from the UK's Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD), which plans to launch NB-IoT networks in 2017. (See Vodafone Ups IoT Stakes With 2017 Plan for NB-IoT and Vodafone to 'Crush' LoRa, Sigfox With NB-IoT.)

Heavy Reading senior analyst Steve Bell reckons NB-IoT chipsets could become available by September and that Altair Semiconductor will be the first company to start shipping them.

That raises the prospect of a tie-up between Vodafone and Actility, which supplies its Thingpark platform to a number of cellular operators that have been relying on LoRa to address IoT demands.

But Mulica was quick to play down any expectations about the commercial availability of 3GPP-based services. "We'll have a product this year but I don't think there will be anything to connect -- that will happen sometime in 2017," he told Light Reading. "We'll have a product if someone wants to steal a march but I don't think the ecosystem will start that quickly."

One issue is whether 3GPP technologies will be able to match up to LoRa on cost. "Some operators think the 3GPP cost structure may be limiting in terms of driving costs down," says Mulica. "SK Telecom probably won't go with LTE-M [another 3GPP standard] but will try to drive down LoRa costs."

South Korea's biggest telco, SK Telecom (Nasdaq: SKM), has made a big commitment to LoRa technology as part of its IoT strategy, claiming to have completed the nationwide rollout of a LoRa network earlier this month, although an executive from SK Telecom previously told Light Reading "the jury is out" on a whole range of LPWA technologies. (See SK Telecom Completes Nationwide LoRa Network Rollout for IoT and SK Telecom, Telkom Indonesia Unite on IoT.)

That includes Sigfox , an LPWA technology developed by the French company of the same name, which has recently taken flak from rivals, analysts and one of its own customers. (See Sigfox Said to Face Customer Backlash.)

Mulica is dismissive of the Sigfox challenge. "They are a global operator and it's very difficult in their model to collaborate in the way a technology company can," he says. "They are at the control point of the value chain: If you are a vendor and want to work with them, they have to figure out how much value they want to share and it becomes a hard conversation."

By contrast, he expects 3GPP standards will eventually become a "big event" in the IoT industry, explaining Actility's desire to support both LoRa and 3GPP technologies.

Big IoT ambitions
After raising $25 million in funding this time last year from investors including KPN Telecom NV (NYSE: KPN), Orange (NYSE: FTE) and Swisscom AG (NYSE: SCM) (bringing the total it has so far raised to $35 million), Actility drew up an investment plan at the start of this year. But Mulica says the spending on 3GPP -- while "not insignificant" -- has not eaten heavily into available funds because Actility's platform technology was originally designed with radio protocols besides LoRa ultimately in mind.

"What our money has been going into is the build-out of networks and sales and marketing activities," he says.

Actility is now working with about 15 telecom operators globally, seven of which have already deployed national networks. Earlier today, it flagged the completion of a nationwide LoRa deployment in the Netherlands with investor and Dutch incumbent KPN: The plan is to address requirements in vertical markets ranging from agriculture to healthcare.

The energy sector is another critical area for the company, which has formed partnerships with a number of utilities launching smart energy services.

Last week, Actility also announced the formation of a potentially game-changing joint venture in China with Asian hardware giant Foxconn Electronics Inc. "We think this can be a great entry point into industrial China and we can be a full system service provider, doing both hardware and software, whereas normally we just do software," says Mulica.

While Actility seems unlikely to pursue similar arrangements in other parts of the world, the tie-up appeared to make sense in the vast Chinese market because of Foxconn's local importance as a major supplier of what Mulica calls "super-low-cost" hardware. "We'll be able to innovate with them really quickly and think we can drive really low-cost solutions into the market," he says.

Want to know more about the Internet of Things? Check out our dedicated IoT content channel here on Light Reading.

In the meantime, Actility's earnings appear to be growing faster than expected. During an interview last year, former CEO and founder Olivier Hersent -- who now occupies the role of chief technology officer -- told Light Reading that Actility would generate about €5 million ($5.5 million) in revenues in 2015, grow that amount three-fold this year and become profitable in early 2017. Mulica would not divulge any specific earnings details but said the numbers would be "north" of Hersent's guidance. (See Telcos Invest in IoT Tech Startup.)

Actility generates revenues from operators on a recurring, pay-as-you-grow basis. Although its priorities are to enlarge its global footprint and add connections through operator partners, the company sees a huge opportunity to "monetize" the data being aggregated by its platform technology.

"There are lots of valuable decisions that can be taken if you have the data," says Mulica. "One decision might save you thousands of dollars while a subscription is generating only a few dollars per month."

Mulica previously worked for organizations including Phone.com, Openwave Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: OPWV), Syncronoss and Real Networks and says he was recruited as Actility's CEO because of his commercial experience in the wireless and Internet markets.

— Iain Morris, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, News Editor, Light Reading

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kq4ym 7/25/2016 | 9:32:39 AM
Re: Seems like a pivot Interesting how "We'll have a product this year but I don't think there will be anything to connect," at least not until 2017 they say. But, nonetheless something watch at IoT activity starts ramping up over the coming years.
OHersent 7/18/2016 | 8:37:55 AM
Re: Seems like a pivot Complexity and low energy usage do not go well together... most of the power consumption of LTE Mx still comes from complex synchronization with the network requiring sniff periods ... and energy.  The success of the design of LoRaWAN perhaps means that the members of the LoRa alliance have found the right complexity balance to fit requirements and constraints of LPWAN.

When extending ThingPark Wireless, Actility will provide full MVNE subsystem for LTE-Mx optimized for millions of parallel sessions with few packets/day each, and sharing OSS/BSS with existing LoRaWAN ThingPark wireless. That will allow telecom operators to easily extend their LPWA offering to LTE Mx. It may be surprising, but the main issue of cellular operators for LTE Mx roll-out is not in the RAN, but in the OSS/BSS. It is very hard to get attention and time of your internal IT when competing for resources against high ARPU projects like the next iPhone ! That's why we believe from organizational point of view, it is way simpler to consider LTE-Mx as an internal MVNO, which requires a fully autonomous MVNE susbsystem.

Regarding multicast firmware upgrade, this is supported at the application layer and how to do it is available to LoRa alliance members. it is based on adding redundancy to the multicast data (typically a firmware patch), then multicast it over the network using class C or class B. It does indeed require downlink capacity shared with the rest of the network, as any other technology. This downlink capacity may be throttled to use only a fraction of total capacity : i.e. upgrades do take time (a small patch may be done in a day, but others will require multiple days). LTE-M, for obvious reasons, does not have that type of limitation, so if immediate or unicast upgrade is a must over the WAN, LTE M is the way to go. We have also seen some use cases use bluetooth for upgrades.


FabienPG12 7/16/2016 | 5:49:59 PM
Re: Seems like a pivot It has been surprising the adoption that LoRaWAN has seen, given that it is a fairly unsophisticated prototcol compared to LTE-M1/2. I disagree with your statement that LoRaWAN is capable of streaming multicast firmware updates over the air, without effectively bringing down the network. Unless you're referring to Symphony Link, a different protocol for LoRa, which I don't think Actility supports.

What is Acitlity's value add to LTE-M1, since the carrier is providing connectivity that is essentially "the internet." Is it just device management?
OHersent 7/16/2016 | 11:44:04 AM
Re: Seems like a pivot Actually we view LTE-M1&M2 (aka nb-IoT) , and LoRaWAN, as complementary technologies for the LPWA market. ThingPark creates a similar user experience and APIs for both types of networks. See our webinar on positioning of the two technologies on www.actility.com --> LoRa® positioning vs 3GPP technologies

In short, for 20 frames/day, you still have a ~5 fold difference in energy consumption in favor of LoRaWAN, and also an order magnitude difference in peak current that becomes important for battery chemistries used for 15yr+ operation. We believe LoRa will become the "Wifi of IoT" in dense deployments and campus/regional, but also continue to be a first choice for all applications that require very long battery life and low cost. LTE-Mx will rule for applications that need voice (e.g. alarms with voice call option), rapid unicast firmware updates (LoRa can do streamed multicast updates), or large payloads. Ultimately the market needs both, but that does not mean you need separate OSS/BSS and APIs.


FabienPG12 7/13/2016 | 5:06:39 PM
Seems like a pivot Seems like Actility is being forced to pivot away from Lorawan. Not suprising given that 3GPP based technology will address the reliability and performance issues of LoRaWAN, in licensed spectrum, at a competitve price. 

Lora is a better technology for application specific / private networks. It does very well in that space.

See this paper on the realiability issues of LoRaWAN: https://sites.google.com/a/wesdec.be/mweyn/lpwan
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