Smart home devices need secure, compliant, easy-to-use cellular connectivity
Ajay Joseph is the chief technology officer of iBASIS, the provider of communications solutions that enable digital players worldwide with global access for their things. The company today serves more than 1,000 customers from 18 global offices. Here, he tells George Malim how the company is supporting organisations with secure, global, cellular connections for Internet of Things (IoT) and smart home deployments.
George Malim: What do you see as the greatest issues affecting smart home security?
Ajay Joseph: Customers have come to us asking for connections to smart devices such as white goods going into homes. There are two main options for achieving this. One is via the end user’s home WiFi network but this can be limiting because only around 10% connect their devices in this way. This is because doing so is inconvenient and users don’t see an upside to configuring the device so it can connect via Wi-Fi.
Manufacturers therefore prefer to have a cellular connection built-in to the device that can immediately connect when it’s turned on. They need to track usage and performance and enable preventative maintenance and to ensure that’s possible, a cellular network is required.
A further security angle to consider is that many devices go into enterprises as well as the home so this requires a high level of security. It’s not just about securing the identity of the device but also about securing the data coming out of the device. In addition, with data regulation such as GDPR in Europe, it’s important that the laws of the country or region are followed across the globe.
GM: If you look at the options, from Wi-Fi to low power wide area networks (LPWANs) and cellular technologies such as LTE-M and narrowband IoT (NBIoT), there seems to be a bewildering choice. Is there a danger that fragmented connectivity selection increases complexity, creates inefficiencies and, potentially, security weaknesses?
AJ: In terms of what manufacturers are doing, their primary objective is to offer a service that is proactive and enables preventative maintenance. For example, having a fridge that is able to communicate so the maker understands how it is performing means the maker can send an engineer to repair it before an issue occurs. For this to happen reliable, standardised, global connectivity is required.
What we have seen so far is the relationship with the device manufacturer and the device itself. There isn’t an intermediate layer that will take advantage of the information. Now though, device makers are moving from selling hardware to entering the services space. This is an angle for them to get revenue.
The way it’s structured today is if you’re not proactive about how you do the security you could be under threat. This connection extends all the way into the home and back to the manufacturer and, with a cellular subscriber identity module (SIM), there is a trust zone that you can put the security keys inside. By using that you can have end-to-end encryption in terms of the information coming into the device and on to the Amazon Web Services cloud, or wherever.
GM: How does iBASIS help?
AJ: We offer embedded SIMs (eSIMs) in the IoT market. These are a new evolution in the SIM world which enable us to provide global access and deliver an optimal solution for connected devices.
Specifically, what we do in contrast to older global SIMs that provide access via a few operators, is follow GSMA specifications which enable us to connect to multiple operators in a standardised way. This is important for our customers because it gives us the operator credentials or profiles even with Tier 1 operators because they’re happy to work with us because we’re GSMA certified. The implication being our SIM card works across networks and we’re network independent. We typically work with all operators in a country and figure out the best quality or the most competitive price, depending on what the application requires and the appropriate business logic.
GM: Is it just connectivity choice via an eSIM that iBASIS provides?
AJ: No, there’s far more to our offering. We distinguish ourselves even further because we are able to comply with data regulations and adhere to data sovereignty rules and protect data with a certain boundary. We’re localising the connectivity based on where the device is and then the data that is generated gets encrypted for transmission back to the device maker.
Our customers usually want to focus on their own customers’ requirements and acquisition by attracting them to their portals, products and services. The entire network part, which is quite complex in terms of selecting the appropriate operator and keeping data local, is taken care of by us.
GM: How do you see this area developing?
AJ: By installing the eSIM on the production line, knowing that the device will then have secure, high quality, global connectivity, enables a substantial cost saving over retrofitting the connectivity when a device is imported into a market and is also more efficient than producing batches of market-specific devices. All the devices can be the same so this provides a great way to cover as many markets as possible.
This is currently achieved by soldering the eSIM onto the device but soon we will have integrated SIMs (iSIMs). Think of these as part of a semiconductor itself. We’ll increasingly work to streamline how SIM capability is embedded into devices.
In fact, we’re already working with Nordic Semiconductor, which is best known for its leadership in Bluetooth modems, to make global LTE-M and NB-IoT connectivity easy. These cellular modems are embedded into huge numbers of smart home devices at the point of manufacture and we’ve partnered with Nordic Semiconductor to make cellular IoT connectivity ultra-easy, automatic and instant when using its nRF9160 System-in-Package (SiP) module.
Nordic has achieved this by bundling our globally-usable iBASIS eSIM with 10MB of free initial data into all its nRF9160 Development Kits. All a Nordic nRF9160 cellular IoT customer has to do is register their eSIM on Nordic’s nRF Connect for Cloud website to seamlessly connect to the iBASIS network and gain access to an entire range of configurations, monitoring and connectivity services.
We think this is a great example of how iBASIS is simplifying cellular connectivity while bringing customers all the benefits of cellular’s security and ease-of-use at the same time as achieving data regulation compliance.