by Gugu Lourie
The stage to do battle for a connected user is being laid by tech firms – Comsol, Sigfox and Vula Telematix – in a lucrative race to connect homes, farmers, doctors, patients, cars, utilities, and other everyday devices such as fridges and washing machines, etc. to smartphones.
In the meantime, telco’s are setting up their Internet of Things (IoT) platforms to lure customers.
IoT, previously machine-to-machine (M2M), is a concept of connecting devices – ranging from refrigerators, geysers, smart electric meters, coffee makers, etc. – to the internet. Our smartphones, tablets, laptops and even refrigerators make up the Internet of Things. In fact, any device which is connected to the internet makes up the Internet of Things.
IoT is likely to expedite the next industrial transformation.
For years, South Africa’s biggest mobile phone operator Vodacom and rival MTN have led the charge for IoT or M2M solutions that led to the development of the telematics industry in the country with global players such as Mix Telematics. For more read: Mix Telematics’ Subscriber Growth is not Showing Signs of Slowing Down.
To top it all the concept of placing a SIM card into a vehicle to track its performance was born in South Africa.
With the growth of digital services and the hunt for new revenue streams, operators need to maintain their relevance and are seeking compelling services around mobile money, IoT and big data.
After investments of mobile money, IoT has been seen the best way by telcos to enhance their digital services and significantly bolster their digital services revenues.
Estimates are that by 2020, there will be 50 billion things or IoT devices – smart cars, smart parking, smart shoes, smart fridges, smart toasters, smart streetlights, heart monitors, etc. – connected to the Internet. But some of this is not hot air, some companies are already deploying IoT solutions that save lives and empowering farmers to make money across the country.
The South African IoT market, which is mostly dominated by enterprises, is believed to worth about R300 billion, according to a recent report by Vodacom.
But connecting these billions of devices is a challenge for traditional networks as many don’t have the reach to cover vast geographical areas, and most involve high costs.
Developing IoT network infrastructure
Several technology firms are looking at IoT as a lucrative space and are investing time and money to build the sector’s ecosystem and position themselves either as enablers of the market or players providing solutions.
“IoT offers solutions for smart cities, smart businesses, and even many of the challenges we face as a society, for example managing scarce resources like water. By enabling smart tracking, smart perimeter control, smart agriculture, smart buildings, as well as smart city applications like metering and manhole cover monitoring, IoT is already fundamentally changing how we live,” Iain Stevenson, CEO of Comsol, said recently.
“We are proud to introduce the network that is going to empower African utilities, businesses, and individuals to gain the benefits the IoT offers.”
South Africa’s Comsol is deploying IoT network on the back of its R1.5 billion open access layer 2 national network investment and is expected to be available for sensor service termination this month in the major metros. The network is backed by a global alliance and driven by global tech giants Cisco and IBM.
Another player is also developing IoT network in South Africa.
SqwidNet (a wholly owned subsidiary of DFA), is deploying and operating Sigfox’s network nationwide and distribute the IoT connectivity services and solutions to its partner channels. Sigfox is a global provider of a global communication solution powering the IoT.
The roll-out of the Sigfox network in South Africa will initially be in the key metros starting with Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town, and Durban, with full national coverage to be completed by 2018.
While local firm Vula Telematix is rolling out the Machine Network SA, the country’s first public wireless telecommunications network dedicated to M2M communications.
The Machine Network SA is powered by Ingenu’s patented Random Phase Multiple Access technology, which allows Vula Telematix to guarantee that its customers’ devices will work on the network for over 20 years. The Machine Network SA also covers areas that cellular and other network providers are unable or unwilling to, and coverage is consistent, regardless of where devices are located.
This network will benefit mostly our metros and municipalities.
Telco’s invest in Narrowband IoT services
Telco’s are also building their own Narrowband (NB) IoT network as a strategy to counter the new players such as Comsol, Sigfox and Vula Telematics.
Both Vodacom and MTN are deploying their own NB-IoT services to leverage their existing cell phone network infrastructure instead of investing in a costly IoT network.
The NB-IoT services is championed by Vodafone, British mobile giant and owner of Vodacom, and is a better alternative to the likes of LoRa and Sigfox that utilises unlicensed spectrum.
While Comsol, Sigfox and Vula Telematics are busy building their networks, both Vodacom and MTN are sharpening their IoT’s artillery by deploying IoT solutions.
Vodacom NB-IoT platform – launched this week – demonstrate that the telco is deepening its strategic focus on IoT. The platform could be used to nurture an ecosystem of developers, software engineers and start-ups for NB-IoT applications.
The firm also has indicated that it takes IoT seriously as a new source of revenue by developing a dedicated IoT business led by Deon Liebenberg.
The NB-IoT platform provides solutions such as stock visibility solution that enables health clinic dispensaries to report on stock levels on the shelves through a custom-built mobile app. Based on data reported from the clinics, the solution then automates reporting via SMS and e-mail to sub-district and provincial management. For more solutions, visit Vodacom’s NB-IoT platform here.
Vodacom also launched a connected farmer solution, please read: The Connected Farmer: How Vodacom is Making Farming Cool.
While in 2015 MTN Business unveiled its Pan African IoT platform.
“To ensure a seamless customer experience for our customers, wherever MTN has a presence, the IoT platform has a dedicated network, separate from the consumer network, for operational and business systems support. As a result, the platform is dedicated to managing all MTN’s machine-to-machine functions,” Mteto Nyati, MTN SA CEO, said in 2015.
Through its partnership with Huawei, MTN is using NB-IoT services to target much-needed applications such as smart parking, smart farms, smart homes, smart meters, wildlife tracking. They have already developed joint solutions for the local market.
Making acquisitions to bolster IoT ecosystem
To intensify its role in the IoT ecosystem Vodacom last year acquired 100% of local IoT player X-Link Communications. For more read: Vodacom bets big on Internet of Things, increase its stake to 100% in X-Link.
The IoT market is not short of deals aimed at positioning players to take part in this lucrative space. Recently, Stellenbosch-based antenna engineering firm EMSS Group made inroads into the IoT space by making an investment into IoT player Polymorph, which develops mobile and IoT apps.
“The deal brings together an established engineering company and a youthful start-up and fits perfectly into our vision for the development of new hardware and software product lines. In addition, it fast-tracks our entry into the IoT industry by at least three to four years,” EMSS co-founder and group director Frans Meyer, said recently.
That said, with new players such as Comsol, Sigfox and Vula Telematix investing in new IoT networks in South Africa may mean that both Vodacom and MTN are not in a prime position to tackle the IoT space.
Not to be left behind in the lucrative connected car space, both Vodacom and MTN are playing big. Read more: Vodacom, MTN wants to turn your car into “smartphone on wheels”.
They are stepping up their participation in the IoT ecosystem to ensure that they are not being pushed to the margins as simple providers of the infrastructure.
Both Vodacom and MTN are also eyeing to deploy IoT solutions to utilities and municipalities, hoping to capitalise on the growth of smart cities and homes. A telco that will strike a deal with metros such as Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg, etc. to deploy smart city services will smile all the way to the bank.
While telcos are all about enhancing their digital services, and finding new revenue streams through deployment of IoT services, let’s hope that predictions by research firm Capegemini comes to fruition. The research firm argues: “The growth of IoT is set to disrupt the ‘established value chains and stable industrial structures’ through new players the way we see it – who are competent enough to innovate and exploit networks and digitization – changing various industries forever.”