Ankur Bhan, is global head of Nokia’s Worldwide IoT Network Grid (WING), which focuses on enabling its telecoms operator customers to provide seamless IoT connectivity to their customers. He recently met Analysys Mason research director Tom Rebbeck in Dubai to provide an update on the project’s progress since it was first announced in early 2017.
Tom Rebbeck: Please can you start with an overview of WING?
Ankur Bhan: WING stands for Worldwide IoT Network Grid. We started with a vision of enabling operators to offer global, seamless IoT connectivity to their enterprise customers. Our starting position was that many large enterprises were looking for a way to provision and manage devices across multiple geographies with low latency, cost control and consistent service experience.
The vision was to build global scale, multitechnology, carrier-class infrastructure that we build and deploy for our operator customers so that they can offer their large enterprise customers seamless, global IoT connectivity services. The second objective was that with the global shared network, we achieve scale, which will enable operators to benefit from global economies of scale, reduce their cost to operate per SIM and reduce investments into IoT specific developments in the core, such as service capability exposure function (SCEF) for narrowband IoT (NB-IoT).
TR: What’s the archetypal use case for WING?
AB: Automotive is the prime example. Automotive original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) sell their cars across the globe and they require a partner operator that can support them regionally or globally, and that is where it is very, very important that we are able to provide them with infrastructure that provides a consistent experience with a uniform set of service level agreements (SLAs) and a consistent set of operations across their entire footprint.
Many of the jurisdictions, including India, China and Brazil, have different regulatory requirements, such as permanent roaming restrictions or requirements for data sovereignty, which requires infrastructure to be hosted locally. In addition, the growing market of embedded connectivity services like in-car-Wi-Fi, requires a local relationship. That’s where WING with its ‘glocal’ approach of combining the simplicity of one global integration and the benefits of local network comes into play.
TR: How does it work architecture wise?
AB: We have designed our network with control and user plane separation that allows us to offer local break outs, cost control, regulatory compliance and reduced latency by our design. Just think about roaming; in a roaming scenario, the data is backhauled to the home core location and that’s an inefficient way to handle traffic. With control and user plane separation (CUPS) you are able to break out traffic locally and your data doesn’t need to go back to your home core location.
TR: So if it is a car in Russia, it complies with the data sovereignty and the latency is lower?
AB: Yes, and operators can also reduce their costs of roaming as well. They can lower their roaming costs by avoiding the backhaul costs. We believe it can lead to a reduction of roaming costs by up to 25%.
TR: What about other use cases?
AB: Consumer electronics is another example use case. Many consumer electronics and devices are manufactured centrally but are shipped globally. Again these companies have to be compliant with local data requirements, such as data sovereignty laws and the end user requires access to local internet services. They require local break out of traffic. There are many more examples – use cases across manufacturing and logistics. Cold-chain logistics require connectivity – indoor, outdoor and even on the oceans through satellite as well. That’s the other aspect of WING, we are trying to blend multiple technologies
TR: Let’s take a car company – it has a contract with AT&T and then you are supporting that contract. Does it need other partners other than AT&T?
AB: For an automotive OEM, it has a lead operator as the main partner, and then it has operator partners in multiple markets. Let’s take an example of an OEM in the US that requires connectivity in India, China and the US. For such an arrangement to work in a seamless way, you require infrastructure in each country. All of this infrastructure should be designed in a consistent manner. The problem today is that each operator has its own systems, its own policy control rules function (PCRF) and, if an enterprise wants to have a uniform policy of, for example, downloading the software updates, then it is not possible if you are working with multiple operator core networks. The enterprise would have to do it three times as there are multiple operation schemes. You can’t offer a global SLA with the current model.
The current alliance agreements try to solve this, but only do so in a surface layer. What they do at most is provide harmonisation at the interface layer. The customer sees a common connectivity management platform, but there is no deep integration with policy control, back end gateways, call data record (CDR) reconciliation or managed services.
With WING, we are building and operating all of that infrastructure by design. It is a cloudbased using the latest technologies. We are upgrading it to 5G as we speak. Operators are getting best in class infrastructure in a payas-you-go business model that is designed to cater to the most advanced requirements of enterprise customers.
TR: Do you think there is a benefit to doing this now as you don’t have to support a legacy technology?
AB: Absolutely. We have designed our infrastructure on all of the next generation technology. Our core is cloud-native, is compliant to control and user plane separation, we have the application programming interface (API)-driven connectivity management platform, it supports multiple technologies 2G, 3G, 4G, 5G, and also LTE-M and NB-IoT and the cloud really provides us with a lot of agility for supporting multiple tenants, for supporting new instances, for replicating the infrastructure in multiple locations.
WING brings unique set of capability to the market by delivering a next-generation shared network with global economies of scale. This was not possible before and utilises the latest developments in virtualisation both in network and IT stack.
TR: Let’s come back to the SLAs as that seems to be a key feature. Can you give examples of the type of SLA?
AB: Operators have been growing their networks with Nokia and other vendors over the last decades. This led to various different capabilities being set in the local operators. However, in the automotive example, to get a software update, the automotive company needs to be sure that the user and operations experience works consistently across the globe, due to the implied liabilities, costs and brand exposure. With WING they can have a single integration that works consistently across associated networks, it is a big enabler for them to be able to launch these services much faster and drive the market.
TR: And it can be the difference between doing something and not doing it – because the barriers are too high. You might not launch a connected car service in India if volumes are relatively small.
AB: Look at the high average revenue per user (ARPU) markets like the UAE. You don’t have connected cars like you do in the US or the UK. It’s not that people can’t pay. The technology barriers are too high. We are taking those barriers away from multiple opportunities and enabling apps to globalise.
TR: Can you talk about where you are with customers?
AB: Tele2 IoT was our first customer. We announced that at MWC 2018 and soon after we announced our partnership with AT&T to support its global rollout. And we also announced a contract with Marubeni, an MVNO in Japan. We are supporting all of these three customers in their local markets and also supporting their global ambitions. To take an example with Tele2 IoT, it announced the commercial launch of the solution last month. Tele2 IoT calls it EnCore, and it is an IoT core-as-a-service that they are offering to their large enterprise customers to support the challenges of low latency, roaming costs and of full control of the connectivity.
With AT&T, we are already in the deployment phase, supporting its first OEM customer in Europe, and that is going very well. And with AT&T we have already made a public commitment that we will be present in more than 20 countries by Q1 2020, so we are aggressively deploying our infrastructure in Asia, Brazil, the US and Europe.
With Marubeni, we have already started working with its host provider, and that infrastructure is already integrated and, again, Marubeni is trialling with many consumer appliance customers in Japan. There are all sorts of connected appliances – air conditioners, washing machines – and Marubeni is a trading company that has touch points with 400 operating companies. So even their internal demand is quite substantial.
TR: You are trying to help operators with something that isn’t necessarily their key differentiator, but they may not want to use the same infrastructure as a competitor. How will your existing contracts affect future deals?
AB: The way we see it at Nokia is that we are building an Amazon Web Services (AWS)-style connectivity infrastructure that an operator can offer its customers in an easy to consume way with a flexible business model. The operator is not having to make the upfront investment to build the infrastructure. We are taking the delivery risk away, the investment risk away. Do two enterprises feel threatened if they use AWS for their enterprise IT? Perhaps not.
I think it goes back to the question of what is an operator’s proposition. From our perspective, we have a strategy to build this infrastructure. We have heard feedback from operators across the globe that they want us to set up and take the investment risk. WING is an answer to that feedback.
TR: The AWS analogy is useful but it also raises the question of how you position yourself. AWS sells through service providers but also directly to large enterprises. Is there the potential for enterprises taking WING directly?
AB: Our go-to-market model is through operators. Of course, we are evangelising the benefits of WING to enterprises, but our go-to-market model is through operators. And in the end of course what we are doing together with operators is to offer to enterprises and their end users more flexible ways to consume connectivity.
We are very happy to work with operators or MVNOs across the globe. For example, Marubeni is not a classic operator. It is an industrial conglomerate with multiple businesses. It has an entity called Marubeni Wireless, which has an MVNO licence, with its own independent mobile subscriber identity (IMSI) number range.
If an enterprise wants to consume, they will have to have their own IMSI range, and the necessary licences to operate. Nokia WING will never have its own IMSI range that we will sell.
TR: What are you doing to stimulate the demand with enterprises?
AB: We see IoT increasingly as a regional or a global play. In fact, one of your recent research reports said that 40% of the IoT connectivity demand in Asia was falling as part of a regional or global contract. We definitely believe that enabling seamless connectivity that works consistently across multiple markets will accelerate the whole ecosystem.
We are actively supporting that ecosystem with that infrastructure layer but also evangelising some pre-packaged vertical solutions fully integrated into our ecosystem. A good example is our comprehensive smart agriculture services that we demonstrated at AfricaCom in Capetown. This solution is pre-integrated with sensors, the application layer and integrated with the platform. We are offering to our MNO partners so they are not just monetising managed connectivity layer but also can take certain vertical applications.
TR: So that changes the proposition – from outsourcing the core network, that maybe the operator doesn’t want to do, to providing a full end-to-end solution.
AB: Some of the operators we see don’t just want to offer managed connectivity, but want to offer an end-to-end service. It is not all built within Nokia, but we are taking advantage of our global presence and reach to bring together with partners.
Within IoT we see lots of examples of good companies in small markets that are not able to expand globally. WING also provides a platform to these partners and helps them to work with our MNO customers.
TR: In Geoffrey Moore’s book Crossing the Chasm he talks about how you can sell technology to your earlier clients, but to sell to the mass market you need to provide much more than just technology. And that sounds more like your model here. AT&T probably doesn’t need you for agriculture but there is a long tail of operators who definitely do.
AB: Absolutely. And they are not going to be scale players in managed connectivity and so they want to specialise on vertical solutions. We are following this hybrid strategy of managed connectivity and vertical solutions.
TR: Are you looking at other verticals?
AB: We will be looking at asset management, smart cities and utilities. Things that work across multiple geographies and that are easily addressable by our MNO customers.
Our core proposition is still managed connectivity. Our main business is managed connectivity and that is where we focus on. There are many operators all around the world that may not want to jump into managed connectivity but really want to go into a particular vertical. We support them there but we also take the vertical lead or try to help them expand horizontally.
TR: Let’s finish by touching on 5G. How do you see that developing?
AB: I believe that 5G will bring a new era of connected devices in automotive, industrial IoT and those leveraging AR/VR applications. That can scale in large numbers with low latency connectivity. We will be supporting 5G from 2019 and we are already working with our customers on 5G for automotive and manufacturing. We are really excited about that development.