Behind the operators’ technical scenes on the new iPhones, new Android, or the new Microsoft deal

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As we are getting closer to the traditional yearly event from Apple next week, where new iPhone devices (most likely an iPhone 5S, an iPhone 5C, and possibly a new iPad?) are to be announced (here), Google has also announced in parallel the name of their new OS for Android (Android 4.4 Kit Kat) (here). If you live in this world, you should also know by now that Microsoft bought Nokia’s mobile phones division according to this week announcement (here). The battle of the mobile devices and OS is as interesting as every year in the last decade, and this battle has implications for all of the involved in the industry at all the possible layers, including of course the subscribers but also the Communication Service Providers (CSP’s) or operators. No matter if you work with an operator, or a vendor, or a consultancy, or are just a technology fan, you should know from the top of your head what is the current market share for mobile OS, or what is the split between the Android OS versions installed in the handsets, among others stats or facts. I give you a few ones below for feeding your knowledge hunger.

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A few years back when Blackberry was booming the smartphones’ market with their -by then- innovative products, the operators learned many technical lessons from this in the hard way. The network engineers until then focused only on delivering enough bandwidth to supply the subscribers’ traffic demand, saw how the push messages and always-communicating nature of the Blackberries boosted the number of sessions established in the networks while having the same PDP context established. This in example increased the Transactions Per Second (TPS) in the signalling plane of their network elements and business to values never seen before, leading to service downtimes and traffic outages, creating a huge change in the scaling and sizing paradigms and methods for the networks. The introduction of Blackberry devices in masses leaded to multiply those TPS for the same traffic, and the technical effects were also seen in other areas. In example after having a maintenance in the networks, and all the devices re-connected to the operator at the same time leading to transactions bursts, among many other examples I am sure any operators’ network engineer for that time can provide. All of this was traduced on massive revenue losses, which are usually the main triggers for immediate changes in the operators’ methods. As the years passed and more and more devices appeared having this same always-connected or always-communicating behaviour (e.g. pretty much all of the smartphones today), the operators adjusted all of their systems and methods for ensuring no problems were seen for this matter. Whether improving the sizing and scaling techniques, or applying Policy Management and Enforcement tools (PCRF/PCEF), or signalling routers, or traffic control agents, or simply adjusting profiles and timers for a more efficient sessions’ handling, among other methods.

Similar challenges have been seen when OS updates are made available for the smartphones. Since a big part of the subscribers tends to accept the update once the notification is received, typically happening around the same time. So again creating an unexpected increasing traffic (this time in both bandwidth and TPS) in the networks. Situations like these are also seen during important events, like the football world cup finals, etc. and most of the operators today make the scaling and sizing of the systems considering these events.

In other words, in today’s world the communication between the marketing and engineering teams of an operator is more important than ever. Announcements like the ones from Apple next week and the ones from Google must be closely monitored, as these represents new challenges, and -do not get me wrong- also new opportunities for business. In example, the subscribers are having freedom to connect liberated devices into the networks for browsing, or selecting which OS to download and install in the handsets, and this modifies the traffic and usage patterns seen in the networks. We saw this also with the introduction of the electronic books and tablets, and we will keep seeing this in the future with the new devices like the smart watches, or the smart glasses, etc. This represents challenges to meet the changing demands, but also new opportunities for monetizing the new network usage profile, etc. The role of the Business Intelligence (BI) and Analytic’s platforms are becoming critical. The extension of these towards more intelligent models like Predictive Analytic’s for performance of the networks and the systems, plus the actual business indicators of the networks, are and will be a key in the operators’ efficiency and the telecom business profitability.

A. Rodriguez

From M2M to IoT, or the buy cheap-buy lots evolution

Machine to machine type communications (M2M) have existed since almost 20 years ago, probably starting with Siemens innovations for that point in time around 1995 when the first machines were provided with communication capabilities for interacting with remote servers automatically. The M2M technology has widely evolved the machines communication capabilities, its services, and its applications during these years, getting to complex and sophisticated systems available today for a wide range of applications including: automated health systems, industry appliances, telemetry, transport communication, vending machines, e-commerce and retail, among many others. In addition, the networks carrying the information from these client devices or smart machines to the application servers have evolved in parallel, to the point where most of the M2M devices today uses the cellular networks, most of these on 2G and some of these in 3G and more recently 4G/LTE. Thanks to this it is possible to efficiently have the vending machines filled from the storages in time, the medical reports sent in real time to the hospitals, or the transport trucks float located around the world at all times, for giving a few obvious examples.

Today, as the telecom evolution continues, we have a major trend in the industry known as the Internet of Things (IoT), or Internet of Everything (IoE) depending on who tells the story. The IoT intends to propose an important evolution from the classical M2M communication to some kind of utopia where every object in the world can and will be connected in the future. Current innovative IoT products allows controlling the lights in the house, or the doors, or even the kitchen appliances remotely, with a single click or touch of our tablets and smartphones.

The applications available for encouraging the IoT today range from a wide offer of home appliances connected with the cloud (e.g. from toasters to TV’s, and from the house’s light systems to the AC’s), to devices designed to be wear-on during our day-to-day activity (e.g. connected shoes or t-shirts). This of course includes famous and innovative devices like the smart watches from big companies investing on these e.g. Apple or Sony, or the optic devices like the Google Glass. What all of these devices have in common however, is the fact that the previously industrial purposed M2M technology is being extended to the common user for personal or business usage. Which is mainly happening thanks to the low cost and low power sensors and actuators being available just now in the market, as the electronics for these is getting more popular, among other factors. As such, today we can find in example movement sensors with cellular connectivity on 3G networks interacting with Android applications from USD$10 or so, when a few years back this implied hundreds or thousands of dollars, if at all available for retail.

Cisco counter

The projections in the number of devices and objects potentially connected for IoT, and being shared by the incumbent analysts and vendors, are simply dazzling. Cisco Systems in example estimates we had 8.7 billion connected objects in the world for 2012, and we will have around 14.4 billion and 18.2 billion for 2014 and 2015 respectively. There is even an online counter or estimator of connected objects in real time available in this link. We should keep in mind Amara’s law however where especially in innovations “we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run”; but even after a reality check, the number of connected objects in the future should still be amazingly high.

These figures justifies the amount of people wanting to participate in the evolution, and this also includes the network operators. Traditionally the M2M technology had historically represented very low ARPU for the operators. In example some reports from Vodafone indicates the average revenue per month per account for M2M during 2012 was around USD$5, with projections to lower this value during the coming months in 2013; while the cost of delivering services in 2G/3G is much higher than this. Therefore, the M2M business is only profitable for an operator when having big amounts of accounts and devices, and as the nature of the M2M traffic is producing very low throughput usage in the network with lots of transactions this is also technically feasible to handle with current networks. The situation for the IoT is therefore only desirable from a massive implementation point of view, just then allowing a credible business case for the operator.

Cisco graph

This year we are starting to see the operators decommissioning their old 2G networks (where most of the current M2M devices are operating today) or planning to do so in the coming years, for allowing this spectrum being reused on future LTE and LTE-advanced deployment. Most likely spectrum is and will be the most desirable good for the operators as technologies evolve these years. This forces the M2M communications to be deployed on 3G or 4G/LTE networks, and triggers issues like seen in the USA where point of sales only operating on 2G networks were suddenly left out of business with no alternative option. The business case for M2M on 3G and 4G/LTE networks however is still not clear, as even when the cost for the operator to deliver services on these technologies is cheaper, not all the M2M devices support these technologies yet, and not all the operators have recovered the capital investments on these access technologies neither. Considering all of this in my opinion, if we are planning to have credible and massive implementations of IoT in the future, we will have to see these adapted to the most recent communication technologies, for making sure these survive… and the operators keep their profitability. In other words if a smart toaster gives little gain to the operator, he would only support to communicate it if you have millions of smart toasters connected in a signed contract… buy cheap, buy lots. Keep the profitability levels for having everybody happy in the evolution towards an intelligent objects world.