Sketching the Industrial Landscape at Mobile World Congress

As ever, there was plenty of industry activity and opinion at Mobile World Congress – 5G? so soon? – but the trends that promise to have an immediate impact on the BSS were focused on the emerging Internet of Things (IoT) which seemed this year to be moving beyond speculation into some kind of reality, not least in a welcome evolution of its vocabulary.

As a term, ‘IoT’ has served us well for internet-connected gadgetry such as the fitness devices that were around every techno-fashionable wrist in Barcelona. They’re internet-connected devices, they link to your smartphone, they create negligible amounts of data… they’re internet peripherals if you like, much like the Kindle or the smartphone itself, and IoT is probably a good enough way of talking about this continuing market for Internet-connected personal equipment.

A much broader view of the likely direction of widespread machine-to-machine connections is emerging, however, and was discussed at some length in Barcelona under the popular heading of ‘industrial internet’ – the application of internet technology to industrial and commercial challenges and opportunities.

‘Industrial internet’ is a useful term because it reminds us that future telco success depends on more than consumers. Industrial internet opportunities will be fundamentally B2B – CSPs supporting other industries and businesses – and are part of the trend away from the B2C business which dominated MWC until very recently. It also feels less about gadgets and devices, and more about the flow and exploitation of data across the internet, which is where the real value lies.

So ‘industrial internet’ feels like a good banner beneath which to explore this rapidly evolving space, to consider the role which operators will play, and to examine how their contribution – including, as a number of speakers suggested, the construction of a 5G network which would effectively be ‘the IoT network’ – can be most effectively monetized and compensated.

At MWC, the IoT and connected lifestyles sessions were plentiful but disappointingly thin, offering much speculation on future devices (including our old friend the connected fridge), lots of snazzy wearables and smart vehicle technology, but very little on either the technical model or the business model that will support these innovations. Could it be that telcos are becoming distracted by what the technology can do and have given comparatively little thought as yet to how it will work as a business in which Internet players, industry incumbents, software companies and network equipment manufacturers are all competing (and collaborating) for prizes?

One thing is clear: the operator’s role in connected propositions will almost invariably be as contributor or collaborator rather than as leader. This means that underlying systems will need to be genuinely flexible. Creating highly specific solutions for every opportunity in which the operator participates won’t be commercially viable. The key may be to develop configurable functionality for the ‘heavy lifting’ activity which comes naturally to telcos – such as transaction monitoring, collection, routing, analytics, reporting, notifications and so on – while leaving the platform open enough to accommodate solution-specific aspects such as partner interaction, user interfaces specialist hardware and so on.

It also means that for most telcos addressing the industrial internet, the existing BSS won’t do. Not only is telecoms BSS typically too rigid to adapt to what is in effect a diversification of the business, but it could also be true of the people that operate it. The telco’s contribution to industrial internet applications is likely to be managed by a wholly different set of individuals from those running the legacy business, and they need their own dedicated support, whether that’s coming from in-house IT or – as seems increasingly likely – from external partners offering managed systems support.

More than simple Internet of Things offerings, the industrial internet feels like it has the potency and potential to generate significant new revenue for operators, from genuinely exciting opportunities. The industrial internet represents how the world is changing around us, and if operators can adapt quickly enough, they can play a key – and significantly remunerative – part in that change.

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