Tom Rebbeck, the research director for the Enterprise and IoT research practice at Analysys Mason, spoke to Erik Brenneis, the chief executive of Vodafone Global Enterprise, about Vodafone’s NB-IoT networks, developer tools and smart city projects.
Tom Rebbeck: It would be good to get an update on NB-IoT. What is the progress in rolling out the network and what can you say more about the pilots?
Erik Brenneis: We have Open Labs in several countries and live networks in several cities in Spain and the Netherlands. Networks are being built in Germany and Ireland. In Italy, the Czech Republic, Australia and South Africa, networks are planned to roll out this financial year.
TR: Are you seeing any new or surprising use cases?
EB: We are working on many use cases. Some of the new ones include: earthquake monitoring, smart potato crop management, garden sprinklers, tracking of empty properties, connected vacuum cleaners, connected air fresheners and site management.
These are just some examples of relatively new things. We have come across some of these in the past, but there was never the business case to do them with GSM.
We have engaged with around 180 companies, whose ideas our engineers have worked on and that have been tested in our live environment. We are trying to push up the number of engagements.
TR: For these engagements, how are they coming to you? How are they finding out about NB-IoT?
EB: In many ways. We have our direct sales force and have defined the target areas; a classic example would be utilities or industrial companies. Our account managers speak directly to the customer to identify opportunities.
We also have dedicated marketing through our operating companies’ sales channels, and we’ve engaged with smaller companies.
A third way, which we want to grow, is our developer platform for start-ups, students and small companies that have a cool idea. Whereas in the past we focused on the big industrial companies. We want to become the Android for connectivity of the mobile IoT.
TR: You talked about the developer platform – can you talk more about what you are doing beyond connectivity?
EB: We want to become the leading IoT platform both for connectivity but also for developers – take a start-up developing connected water sprinklers, they will need to have a programming environment to write their application. They will need hardware – a communications unit and the actual device, in this case, a water sprinkler – and they will need a network in between. They want to spend as little time as possible managing the network as they want to optimise their application. There are lots of start-ups who have these requirements.
For these companies, we now have partnerships in place with of all of the leading suppliers of application enablement platforms, like ThingWorx. A start-up can develop on ThingWorx, and it is fully integrated into our connectivity management platform. Microsoft Azure is also already pre-integrated. We have the vision to deliver the simplest connectivity platform including service or application enablement platforms.
TR: Can you talk about some of the other things that Vodafone can provide, like professional services and hardware?
EB: Regarding professional services, our IoT professional services consultants have extensive technology, process and industry knowledge and advise and support our customers. We have application engineers around the world that help our customers connect their application to the network, using a discover, design, develop and deploy approach.
In terms of hardware – we have our own hardware portfolio for automotive, for example. If someone wants a telematics box, we can get it in-house, if someone wants a generic router we can get that. If someone has specific needs, then we help them identify the right hardware from our global portfolio of partners that already have Vodafone inside pre-embedded.
TR: So, if I were to start an IoT company tomorrow – you should be able to help me out with everything?
EB: 100% yes. Not everything will come from Vodafone, but we can point you in the right direction.
TR: It would be useful to hear more about what you are doing in smart cities.
EB: To start with Philips CityTouch. Philips and Vodafone have developed a connected street lamp, each of which has a SIM so that it can be remotely managed.
It may seem expensive to put a SIM card in every lamp. However, it is actually cheaper and simpler to operate than the old way of having a concentrator and the lamps connected through mesh network.
TR: Why use cellular technology instead of Sigfox or LoRa or even something proprietary?
EB: These things may eventually move to being a narrowband solution. However, part of the potential offering is to also use the SIM card’s 4G connection for other services, like a citywide Wi-Fi network. It doesn’t always need to be in use, but you can enable it under certain circumstances or for certain users, like the police. There are lots of ideas that wouldn’t be possible with a narrowband solution.
Philips is also selling this around the world – one network is in Los Angeles, another is in Eindhoven, The Netherlands. They need to be sure that wherever they sell these street lamps, connectivity is available, which you get with cellular.
TR: What about other examples?
EB: Mic-O-Data is a smaller company, also Dutch, that specialises in RFID and GSM solutions for the waste management industry. It developed a tracker specifically for 6000 trash collection points for 25 local authorities in the Netherlands, and are now expanding into France, Poland and Scandinavia.
These bins get a Vodafone SIM inside and every day it sends a status update, which is used to optimise the routing of the collection trucks. Just in the city of Groningen they saved an estimated €92,000 to date, in capital (purchase of trucks) and operational costs (running, fuel and maintenance for the trucks). Now that’s not a completely new story, but it’s a good example of real tangible results.