IoT wireless communication and network connectivity provider platforms

An overview of IoT device management and IoT network connectivity platforms of wireless communication service operators and network connectivity providers: solutions, companies, evolutions and where these platforms fit in the overall IoT platform, solutions and deployment perspective.

As the IoT platform market matures, a segment of the vendor landscape is beginning to evolve connectivity management–based offerings into broader application enablement platforms (Stacy Crook, IDC, 2018)

IoT platforms don’t just come in many flavors, shapes and more generic or more vertical vendor approaches, they also come from various backgrounds. Some are built by wireless communication network service providers (such as mobile operators), others come from connectivity hardware vendors (including some network connectivity provider platforms), were conceived by IoT device manufacturers, were designed for developers and application development, have a pure cloud middle background, come with vertical market solution roots, were built to offer an open source middleware solution for IoT deployments, the list is long.

Still, all IoT platforms must have a set of capabilities in order to be called an IoT platform. We’ve covered those capabilities several times, among others in an article on the MachNation IoT platform test environment, MIT-E, which offers comprehensive evaluations of IoT platforms, including Industrial IoT platforms and edge platforms, based upon, among others, hands-on test data so buyers can compare and evaluate.

IoT wireless communication and network connectivity provider platforms

On the level of the capabilities that all IoT platforms should have the edition 2018 of the annual MachNation IoT Application Enablement Platform ScoreCard mentions one in the name of the scorecard: application enablement, simply put: capabilities for developers and others in the ecosystem of the IoT platform (of which IoT Application Enablement Platform really is a synonym) to leverage the IoT platform to build (business) applications in a fast, easy, cheap, user-friendly and, ideally, technology, protocol- and hardware-agnostic way if that is of course what you need.

IoT device and network connectivity management

As mentioned in our article on the report, for MachNation other critical capabilities include device management, integration, monitoring, analytics, data management and event processing.

And in those capabilities sits IoT connectivity management with different providers focusing a lot on those aspects, offering IoT device management platforms and/or IoT network connectivity provider platforms as, among others, built by those wireless communication service providers. It sounds complicated but isn’t as you’ll read.

When you start drilling down into all of the key capabilities of an IoT platform additional capabilities surface on a level of standards, communication protocols, specific functions, IoT edge capabilities and so forth. Moreover, as said not all IoT platforms are the same. In Industrial IoT and Industry 4.0 IoT projects and markets you’ll have Industrial IoT platforms with different features and support of applications, standards and use cases that you won’t find in a generic IoT cloud platform, for example. Think about digital twin support, to name just one.

On a technological level such Industrial IoT or IIoT platforms will also typically support edge computing and fog computing. These in turn are not limited to IIoT platforms alone as analysis and intelligence move to the edge in far more applications, including smart cities and smart city IoT platforms, building management and IoT platforms for buildings, etc.

Yet, the essential capabilities remain. Depending on the ‘type’ of platform and/or supported functions of platforms, the requirements get more detailed. For example: the edge capabilities of edge platforms need to respond to certain criteria, same for the IoT device management capabilities.

IoT device and connectivity management: the network and wireless communication service provider perspective

As you could read among the essential capabilities is device management. This, along with other capabilities as communications and connectivity matter in all layers of the IoT stack, includes device connectivity and connectivity management, edge to cloud connectivity and network (provider) connectivity where we meet all sorts of fixed-line and wireless IoT connectivity standards and protocols.

Technology buyers should consider 1) the types of connectivity required for their specific use case, 2) geographic requirements and associated coverage, 3) data plan costs for connectivity, 4) device types that will need to be supported, 5) data types that will be gathered, processed, and analyzed, and 6) API access to platform capabilities when evaluating IoT platform connectivity providers says IDC

These vary from those very close-range ones connecting devices to IoT gateways (which is not always needed), Wi-Fi and Wireless LAN to longer-range ones such as low-power wide-area (LPWA) networks (cellular such as GSM/GPRS-based, LTE-M and NB-IoT and non-cellular such as Sigfox and LoRa) and, when and where needed, satellite communications.

We’ve already covered device management and IoT platforms. So let’s take a look at IoT device management and network platforms from the wireless service and network provider perspective.

IoT device management and IoT connectivity management are not the same but they are closely related as in the end connectivity matters on all levels. Sensors and transducers communicate, IoT devices can communicate with IoT gateways (and close to the edge), IoT gateways and devices communicate and connect with IoT platforms, IoT platforms connect with all sorts of storage infrastructure and cloud; it is pretty diverse but in the end IoT isn’t about connected devices but about data from connected devices and how you leverage it for any given business purpose in combination with any given complementary sets and types of technologies, needed for analysis, specific use cases, environments etc.

With IoT device and connectivity management we, among others, make sure that all those devices are connected and that they capture, transmit, analyze data and do what they need to do by monitoring them, making sure connections are optimal and secure, enhancing efficiency, costs, speed, reliability and more.

IoT network connectivity platforms in an ocean of wireless communication and connectivity options, standards and protocols

Network connectivity features enable to have the devices and applications function across several fixed and wireless IoT services such as the mentioned ones.

A simple example: if you have an agriculture IoT use case with smart irrigation and ample environmental sensors you typically need a low-power wide-area connectivity solution. And there are many flavors of those, cellular and non-cellular. Which ones you will need your IoT platform to support depends on the context. In regions with just good old GSM connectivity you might want to use EC-GSM-IoT once it’s really available, if ever. Maybe there is a non-cellular possibility such as Sigfox or LoRa. Maybe you can use LTE-M, the list goes on.

When IoT projects become more complex and there are multiple use cases with loads of data and several connected environments with some complex locations (e.g. in the oil and gas industry or even in smart manufacturing and smart cities) you’ll typically need several connectivity approaches: some fixed line here (e.g. Ethernet), some LPWA there, maybe another form of LPWA on top of it, perhaps some satellite elsewhere, etc.

It’s clear that in such cases an IoT platform must offer support for all this – or for connecting to it easily.

Focus on IoT network service provider platforms in cellular and non-cellular wireless communications

Many IoT network connectivity provider platforms come from mobile network and service operators and manufacturers of hardware for mobile network standards such as LTE-M and NB-IoT.

They also aim to be future-proof for when 5G and IoT is a fact (not for tomorrow) and, depending on platform, support other wireless solutions. Others come from the non-cellular LPWA corner and still others come from manufacturers of hardware and solutions for IoT.

Examples include the managed IoT connectivity platform of Vodafone (which along with device management and application enablement is a cornerstone of the Vodafone IoT platform, there is more on the evolutions in IoT connectivity in the Vodafone IoT Barometer 2017/2018 by the way), the IoT Connectivity Hub platform of Telefónica, Verizon’s ThingSpace IoT platform, the AirVantage IoT Platform from leading cellular and 3GPPP-standardized LPWA modules and solution provider Sierra Wireless, Cisco’s Jasper Control Center which automates connectivity management, the M2M and IoT connectivity management platform of Telit (which is among the leaders of products for unlicensed LPWAN, including LoRa, Sigfox), Particle’s end-to-end cellular IoT platform, the list goes on.

Communication carriers have a larger opportunity if they offer services and solutions powered by technology from the best application enablement platform (AEP) partners (MachNation, 2015)

From network and wireless communication service providers such as AT&T and Orange (which, on top of cellular also offers LoRA) to more well-known manufacturers and service providers such as Ericsson and Huawei: they all have their platforms.

Add to that the IoT platforms of companies that support LoRa (e.g. the LoRa IoT Cloud Platfom of thethings.iO, also part of the Sigfox network, and Actility) or the bunch of large and small platforms in the Sigfox partner network (from open platforms such as SAMSUNG Artik Cloud or platforms with support for Sigfox such as Amazon AWS, Microsoft Azure, IBM Watson IoT, Cumulocity IoT or ThingWorx who also support others of course to Sigfox- and/or LoRa-dedicated niche platforms in areas such as smart street lighting) and the list becomes long.

Moreover, we’re also going somewhat out of the scope of our IoT connectivity management and IoT wireless service provider and IoT network providers here.

Wireless communication and network connectivity service provider IoT platforms: the players and market in evolution

The thing is that it all connects in the grand scheme of IoT platforms. While many mobile network operators have full-fledged IoT platforms or say they do, with also application enablement and other capabilities, and while companies such as Cisco offer platform solutions for carriers, in the end only some IoT platforms are strong in close to all capabilities.

Others are stronger on the levels of device management, application enablement (key), interoperability, security, connectivity and so on. Then there are the generic cloud players and the vertical players. Or those who support emerging use cases based upon specific technologies; from the mentioned digital twins to artificial intelligence, machine learning and machine vision, fog computing, augmented reality and even blockchain and IoT. And obviously they build partnerships and ecosystems as no IoT platform today is strong in everything.

On top of that some of the mentioned IoT platforms which are strong in connectivity and/or device management are also leaders in several other areas. Cisco’s Jasper is a good example. Telit is another one. In fact, providers of IoT platforms that rank well in the connectivity area, including Cisco, Telit, Huawei, Software AG, PTC (ThingWorx), Ericsson and thethings.iO are either ranked in MachNation’s 2018 IoT edge ScoreCard, 2018 IoT AEP ScoreCard or both. You also find several ones in research from other analysts, including on vertical markets.

And that brings us to an IoT platform provider evaluation by IDC, announced in January 2018, that really looks at the IoT device and network connectivity provider offerings in mainly the cellular IoT connectivity and overall network connectivity corner (LPWA, let alone wireless, obviously are just parts of the overall equation).

IoT platforms in a world of cloud and fog computing - infographic by Telefónica - one of the evaluated vendors in the "IDC MarketScape: Worldwide IoT Platforms (Device and Network Connectivity Providers) 2018 Vendor Assessment" - infographic source and courtesy Telefónica IoT
IoT platforms in a world of cloud and fog computing – infographic by Telefónica – one of the evaluated vendors in the “IDC MarketScape: Worldwide IoT Platforms (Device and Network Connectivity Providers) 2018 Vendor Assessment” – infographic source and courtesy Telefónica IoT

Cellular communication service provider and device management IoT platforms: companies and selection criteria

The report, “MarketScape: Worldwide IoT Platforms (Device and Network Connectivity Providers) 2018 Vendor Assessment”, offers an analysis of companies offering cellular connectivity management and/or other capabilities such as IoT device management. And that is of course just a piece of the overall IoT platform market which might not be clear when looking at the title of the press release.

IDC defines an IoT platform as “a commercial software product that offers some combination of the following capabilities: management of IoT endpoints and connectivity; access, ingestion, and processing of IoT data; visualization and analysis of IoT data; and IoT application development and integration tools”. That’s pretty much overlapping with what MachNation and several others say since quite some time, even if the market, although overcrowded, is still young.

Maintaining and growing an IoT Application Enablement Platform (AEP) is not easy, even for a global systems integrator (Steve Hilton, MachNation, 2018)

The specific report however focuses on those with strength in the IoT platform connectivity layer and build additional application enablement services around that. This is indeed an evolution that’s been going on for years and there is certainly potential for such connectity players to do so.

As an August 2015 analyst insight from MachNation, entitled, “Communication service providers can triple their IoT/M2M revenues with an IoT application enablement platform“, already explained it takes several steps to be successful in doing it.

Yet, the market is showing something else too: more and more partnerships such as, in April 2018, between Orange Business Services and Siemens MindSphere and between Software AG and Telefónica (and far more before, also think about the latest investment of Deutsche Telekom in relayr, for example).

An interesting read about the partnership between Orange Business Services and Siemens comes from Steve Hilton who sees a sign in the deal that “maintaining and growing an IoT Application Enablement Platform (AEP) is not easy, even for a global systems integrator like Orange Business Services.”

A market in flux indeed. For those who are interested in the strong players in the cellular connectivity management space, which really is the main focus of the “IDC MarketScape: Worldwide IoT Platforms (Device and Network Connectivity Providers) 2018 Vendor Assessment, here is the link to the report”.

Evaluated vendors are AT&T, Cisco, Ericsson, Huawei, Orange Business Services, Particle, Sierra Wireless, Telefónica, Telit, Verizon, and Vodafone.

When considering such a connectivity management oriented platform vendor here are the criteria IDC advises you to consider according to the press release and are very much in line with general business and technology considerations in selecting the best IoT platform, at the edge or elsewhere.

  • Types of connectivity required for their specific use case.
  • Geographic requirements and associated coverage.
  • Data plan costs for connectivity.
  • Device types that will need to be supported.
  • Data types that will be gathered, processed, and analyzed.
  • API access to platform capabilities.

Happy IoT platform selecting. Do not forget to look at the roadmaps and partnership ecosystems that are forged and the investments and mergers and acquisitions whereby prominent players replace some of the engines of the platforms they bought by their own, better solutions (as Software AG did on an analytics level with Cumulocity IoT) or strenghten their weaknesses in so many other ways as some of the big cloud players have been doing in efforts to catch up with their competitors.

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