24 Aug 2017
IoT Data Surge Buoys Carriers as Smartphone Sector Nears Saturation
With smartphone subscriptions nearing 100%, any shortfall in revenue growth on the part of carriers could be made up for by growing Internet of Things-related data demand, according to experts at Florida's Wireless Infrastructure Show.
With stiff competition and consumers demanding the inclusion of ever more mobile data as a standard part of their subscription packages, mobile-phone networks have been facing something of a profit squeeze. Thankfully, despite the number of smartphone users in the US – and in many other developed markets – approaching saturation point, a whole new class of data-hungry clientele is opening up, largely due to the rise and rise of the Internet of Things (IoT).
With everything from domestic appliances to industrial predictive maintenance systems all now competing to send and exchange data, any shortfall in carrier revenue looks to be more than made up for by the demand for IoT connectivity. In terms of early adopters, the market, in the US at least, is being driven by two particular sectors – law enforcement and healthcare. Combining the two, FirstNet, the government-mandated network for first responders, has also made a significant impact.
Addressing the issues that have seen many carriers look to review their business models, Trey Browder, Regional Sales Manager for Advanced RF Technologies, a California-based wireless-solutions specialist, said: "We are seeing a big change in the amount of capital spend that carriers are undertaking, which is, in turn focusing a lot more attention on business users. Essentially, the carriers are trying to transfer the costs of any infrastructure upgrades on to their corporate clients. To this end, you are now hearing terms like: 'Wireless is the fourth utility' being bandied around."
Another to recognise the problems facing the larger mobile-phone networks is David Schwarz, President of Access Wireless Data Solutions, a Florida-based reseller of wireless devices and hsystems. Cutting straight to the crux of the issue, he said: "According to the last census, there were around 325 million people in the US – and pretty much every last one of them has a smartphone. Now, every time you hear that Verizon has added 250,000 subscribers, that means that Sprint, T Mobile or AT&T must have lost 250,000. There are no new subscribers to be had."
While the handset market may indeed be saturated, any potential fall in revenue looks set to be more than made up for by the aforementioned surge in the number of IoT-devices, a huge new market for carriers. Acknowledging this growing opportunity, Schwarz said: "In terms of new systems coming online, there are more every day, vending machines, key readers…"
Highlighting the role that healthcare and law enforcement have already played in this mobile-data revolution, he said: "Now, when a cop pulls you over, for instance, he's got a laptop on a stand, he's running your plates, he's running your driver's licence and that's all mission critical. At the same time, the dispatcher has a map and he's seeing the location of all his squad cars, so when they have time-critical responses, he can deploy the appropriate vehicle.
"In the case of healthcare, that's really starting to explode. It is clearly going to be the next market that really takes off. Already, there are instruments in the back of any ambulance capable of sending the patient's vital signs back to the emergency room while in transit. This is all real-time mission-critical data.
"In the public-safety sector, it used to be that they resorted to private networks, but the maintenance and the licensing was prohibitively expensive. Now they can just go direct to the carrier and, for a monthly fee, they get a discrete subscription."
For Douglas Clary, Director of Wireless Network Engineering Services with Bird Technologies, a Georgia-based radio-frequency measurement and management equipment specialist, it was also the growth in demand from the public-safety sector that he found most striking. Acknowledging the growing importance of the sector, he said: "We now do a lot of work with hospitals, as well as power plants and a number of other remote buildings. We work with a lot of outdoor installations, including the Las Vegas strip. We actually now have thousands of remotes active at outdoor sites."
Browder sees much of this public-safety sector work as being driven by government legislation, saying: "We are now a lot more involved with public-safety bodies across the country. This is something that has been mandated at a national level, with the introduction of FirstNet being a real change."
Cited by many exhibitors, the arrival of FirstNet has clearly made a big impact across the industry. Essentially an interoperable broadband network exclusively for the use of first-responder emergency services, FirstNet has been launched in line with continuing concerns over public safety, particularly with regard to terrorist activity.
Originally given the go-ahead in 2012, FirstNet has been criticised for both running behind schedule and for going over budget. In the more poorly served rural areas, there have also been problems with sourcing adequate broadband coverage.
There was also widespread discussion at the event as to whether the US can still be seen as taking a lead in the wireless infrastructure and manufacturing sector or whether other markets, notably Europe, have moved into pole position. Championing the home market, Clary said: "To my mind, the US still leads, largely because it still has the best resources in terms of investment.
"In other markets, they tend to be slower to adopt new technology, partly because they simply don't have the necessary funding. Here in the US, though, we get to try it out, then, if it catches on, the rest of the world eventually picks up on it."
Arguing the case for the markets further afield, Anne McGee, Regional Sales Manager for Cobham, a Texas-based technology company, said: "In many ways, Europe has greater potential, partly because a number of the differences in public infrastructure necessitate the use of short-range small cell equipment.
"Overseas, they also have more tunnels and more rail connections, something that we don't have to the same degree in the US. While there are some tunnels in Chicago and New York, we don't have tunnels in Texas.
"In the different markets, you can have quite different drivers. We don't have a number of the things that are spurring developments in Europe, particularly with regard to things like public transport."
At this year's event, Cobham was looking to promote its new ID DAS system, technology that has been designed as a way of shifting capacity in order to meet rising and falling levels of demand, ultimately reducing the need to overbuild and install equipment that might stand idle for long periods of time. Explaining just how the system works, McGee said: "Essentially, it operates very much like a LAN. We take a signal and we digitise it, and then we can allocate just where we want it to go.
"It's not like an analog system where, when you send it out, it has to go to all of your remotes. We can also shift capacity dynamically instead of having to add more equipment to gain any additionally required capacity."
The Wireless Infrastructure Show 2017 was held from 22-26 May at the Rosen Shingle Creek Resort in Orlando, Florida.
James O'Donnell, Special Correspondent, Orlando