Vodafone’s IoT chief: ‘Narrowband IoT will define the machines age’

13 Jul 2016

Vodafone's chief of the internet of things for Northern Europe Cyril Deschanel says the mobile giant is making a bit bet on narrowband-IoT.

While the world of telecoms is fixated on 5G, Vodafone has an ace up its sleeve in terms of the newly-minted narrowband internet of things (NB-IoT) standard, according to the company’s head of IoT for Northern Europe, Cyril Deschanel.

Deschanel heads up Vodafone’s internet of things (IoT) focus in the UK, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark, and is managing its transition from a mainly industrial reality to a consumer and residential future.

Deschanel joined Vodafone in 2011 as head of M2M (machine to machine) for Southern Europe. Prior to that, he masterminded the automotive M2M business globally for Sierra Wireless.

It is under Deschanel’s leadership that, last year, Vodafone and EMC jointly invested €2m in the new INFINITE testbed for the industrial IoT in Cork. This will enable businesses from start-ups to global players in industries like healthcare, transport and financial services to devise the applications and services of tomorrow.

‘NB-IoT will be the enabler for the next big wave of wireless, bigger than the wave we are seeing today with cellular technology. NB-IoT will define the machine age’

“Within Vodafone we see IoT as an enormous opportunity and the market has been growing at a high rate in the seven years since we created our IoT division.”

The Cork investment is just one of a swathe of initiatives taking place across the Vodafone ecosystem. Cisco estimates that the IoT world of sensors, automated homes and factories, smart buildings, smart cars and even smart islands will grow to 50bn connected machines between 2020 and 2030.

According to the GSMA, there are now 7.7bn mobile connections on the planet, including some 241m M2M devices. Vodafone’s global network counts 38m IoT/M2M connected devices.

“We are seeing new verticals coming into the loop. It used to be just utilities and manufacturing but now you are seeing new areas in automotive, retail and, of course, the digital home,” said Deschanel.

Convergence of the consumer and industrial internets

Deschanel explained that the key to understanding the IoT world is realising the devil is in the detail and, as well as bringing back data in real-time, it is about thinking beyond the immediate and putting in mechanisms for analysis, predictive maintenance and more.

“To date, Vodafone has been providing internet of things solutions around 2G, 3G and 4G and, of course, 5G is just around the corner. But to understand how we are gearing up for the internet of things it is important to also look at new standards like narrowband-IoT (NB-IoT).”

NB-IoT is critical because it will enable operators like Vodafone to build IoT networks in a more cost-effective way. Using traditional cellular for IoT applications will be very expensive. NB‑IoT applications focus on low speed, robust data transfer and will be extremely reliable and cheaper to install.

“We are really going to invest heavily in NB-IoT technology because it will be a licensed spectrum technology that is complementary to cellular and can bring benefits that cellular can’t.

“It is a low-cost, low-energy technology and enables machines to last longer with greater autonomy. For example, it helps penetrate inside or under buildings and reach places that cellular cannot. You can have machines that are five metres under a house or building that can communicate where cellular just can’t.

“NB-IoT will be the enabler for the next big wave of wireless, bigger than the wave we are seeing today with cellular technology. NB-IoT will define the machine age.”

Deschanel said that Vodafone has been involved in all manner of IoT deployments and has been working with organisations like General Electric, Karcher, and Porsche to drive the future of the world of machines.

“There is not only the smart home that is coming, there is the smart car, the smart building, the smart city. We even have a smart island project in Gran Canaria, for example.

“We are seeing the convergence between the consumer world and the industrial world. For example, with Porsche Car Connect you can start the heating in the car from your smartphone. BMW has asked that we enable maps to be downloaded into the car from your home PC. It is possible to start the heating in your house from your car before you even get home.

“We want to make the most of the prevailing technologies, whether it is 4G or 5G for the individual, to the NB-IoT connectivity on devices in the home or business to take all the frictions away.

“The citizen IoT experience will be very similar to the industrial experience in terms of how we will harness technology. We are prepared for that because obviously we have a large B2C base and we are already a large user in terms of IoT. We already manage both worlds and we are spearheading the convergence between these two worlds.”

Deschanel is cautious about commenting on my observation that soon a Vodafone store on the high street might one day be no different to a John Lewis if the march of IoT becomes a popular phenomenon.

“We are doing a lot of different things in this area, for example, in Italy, we are driving a lot of our smart civilian solutions, but we have yet to define our global approach.”

A platform for at least 1bn things is just the start

He explained that Vodafone’s journey into the IoT world has been gradual but not without purpose.

“We first invested in the global managed connectivity platform and now we have 38m active M2M connections in the world and we are number one in terms of IoT connections.

‘It’s our job right now to design and invest in this network in such a way that it will enable a big data picture to be assembled from tiny particles of data in real-time’

“We have also invested in our people and resources. Within Vodafone, we have 1,400 IoT experts. That is a clear message to the market that we are investing heavily in this sector and we are developing and investing in new technologies like NB-IoT.

“We keep investing in 3G, 4G and 5G but, obviously, we are also investing in NB-IoT.”

Deschanel cited Vodafone’s acquisition of Cobra Automotive Technologies, an Italian company, two years ago for €145m, which is at the heart of its collaborations with carmakers such as Porsche and BMW. This was a calculated bet because it will be no doubt interesting how this will play into how players like Apple and Tesla will harness the ubiquity of IoT in terms of automotive and smart home experiences.

“Investing in vertical IoT providers like Cobra sends out a clear and strong message to the market,” Deschanel said.

We discuss the €2m joint investment between Vodafone and EMC in an industrial IoT platform in Cork. “We are addressing all of the IoT sectors and we are investing a lot in agriculture, health, industrial and security and we are also looking at retail and how financial services players like banks can harness IoT.

“The testbed is quite unique in terms of what we are doing here in Ireland. We also want to help the start-up community and any large companies that want to test some IoT applications or devices in a fast way.”

He said the purpose of the testbed isn’t just technological, it is about economics too.

“The IoT value chain is going to be quite complex and it will take time to join up all the dots. But if we can speed things up in terms of telecoms and connected products and speed up our deployments, we can save players time and help solutions emerge globally.”

Deschanel cites Dublin-headquartered Fleetmatics as one of Vodafone’s largest customers in Ireland. “They are incredible. They have gone across the world and have the largest market cap in terms of fleet companies in the world. They started in Ireland and connect hundreds of thousands of vehicles across the globe.”

Ultimately, Deschanel said, IoT will be about the data. “As a world leader in this space, we are anticipating the creation of a network that will be a platform for more than 1bn connections. Currently, we are at 38m in terms of capacity.

“But with IoT you will see high levels of data usage but also really tiny levels of data usage that when added up will provide an unrivalled view of a living, pulsating network of things,” Deschanel concluded.

“It’s our job right now to design and invest in this network in such a way that it will enable a big data picture to be assembled from tiny particles of data in real-time from lots of different machines. Whether it is over mobile broadband on cellular or over the NB-IoT networks we plan to build, the capacity will be designed to be fluid, smooth and resilient.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years