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Welcome to this week’s Wireless Noodle I want to talk this week about a couple of things. I promised a summary of the discussions on my panels at the Total Telecom Congress, and I also want to talk about sustainability. I know it gets trotted out as a corporate social responsibility topic every so often, related to environmental impact. But I want to dig deeper. Also, a new technology company that caught my eye, Stream Analyze, which does data stream analysis. The interesting unifying theme that cuts across this week is the extent to which there’s a bit of a rebound to reintroducing the humanity into technology.
The good folks at Total Telecom have been tracking the tech sector for decades and I was delighted to chair a couple of roundtables during their online Total Telecom Congress event which was held last week. And I was a judge for the World Communications Awards. Switching panels to be virtual works pretty well, but I have to say I missed the flying champagne corks and getting dressed up in my tux for the awards dinner. But I digress.
Panel 1 looked at the $6tn opportunity for telcos in IoT. The telco opportunity in IoT is something I’ve spoken about A LOT on this podcast. To the point where I should probably give it a rest for a bit! But the fact that I’ve been watching this space for a long time is part of the reason why they asked me to get involved. Also, I should note that I’ve no idea where the figure of $6tn came from. Our forecasts, which we ran our own webinar on the other week has a prediction of all of IoT being worth just a little over $1tn in 2030. I guess it could be cumulative over a long period. Either way, the amounts are staggering, so well worth digging into the opportunity.
I was joined on the panel by representatives of O2 Czech Republic, Verizon, Jio Platforms and Telia as operators, and also Emeldi which is an operational support system vendor.
I kicked things off by talking about how the operator market for IoT had grown from 100m devices to 1 billion over the last decade and was due to grow to 5.4 billion by 2030. But at the same time, and equally importantly, it wasn’t any more a case of CSPs simply piggybacking on existing infrastructure. They’ve had to make actual investments in new technologies like NB-IoT or in software platforms. And that’s not to mention strategic forays into building services for end users, or buying companies that already provide those services. I described how IoT, as related to the telecoms industry, has grown up. There is more at stake now than in the past when it provided a nice additional stream of free revenue. Investments need to be made, and RoI is critical. And I managed to do all of that in the space of less than 2 minutes. Brevity is the soul of analysis.
I don’t want to paraphrase the whole panel. More interesting is to pick out some of the interesting ideas that dominated.
The first is that operators (and this could apply to anyone) need to find differentiators beyond the vertical. Horizontal differentiators. One that we explored was private networks which were universally seen as being strong opportunities. Another was around optimising networks, such as NB-IoT.
Of course there are strong positions focused on verticals, but there was agreement that this is typically hard earned. For instance, both Telia and Verizon had to acquire companies to build capabilities in transportation and fleet management respectively.
The second was about catalysing the ecosystem of vendors. Now, I’ve heard a million times about IoT marketplaces. But it seems like we’re actually really now getting to a point where there may be a single player able to bring together all the constituent pieces. And that may be the operators. But it also brings me on to the third main topic.
The third big topic related to hyperscalers. They may, alternatively be the big aggregators of IoT, pulling together hardware, software and services. And lots of operators are building relationships with the likes of AWS and Microsoft, which may well define their strategies in the market for the foreseeable future.
In the second panel we dug into the concept of the smart city or the ‘city of the future’, which is one which has been with us for a long time. Exactly what it looks like depends a lot on what perspective you have. A former colleague of mine used to equate it to the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz. In the book it wasn’t actually emerald, it just appeared that way because everyone wore green glasses.
It incorporates ideas of digital inclusion, automation, e-government, public services and so on. We might also fold in electrification, autonomous driving, and many other key technology trends.
And we can’t escape the fact that in many places more attention has been focused on the role of cities in the wake of the current pandemic. Many of these topics have been disrupted, accelerated, changed or in some way affected by the impact of COVID-19 this year.
In the panel I was joined by representatives from the City of Stockholm, Digital Greenwich and Rogers Communications, which has been doing a lot in addressing smart city opportunities in Canada.
One key topics here was citizen engagement and inclusion. Not least by taking advantage of the great opportunities the cellphone presents to engage with users. One example quoted was having a single platform for reporting potholes, so that people could see what had been reported and therefore not phone in again. Better service, more engaging, less resource intensive.
This brought out what I thought was the most interesting finding of the panel. That for years smart cities activities had been technology-led, top down. But when you switch things around and think in terms of citizen engagement it naturally follows that the use cases and implementation is much more bottom up. You still run into challenges with fragmented layers of government creating friction, but it’s still a much more effective approach.
The other significant talking point was around co-innovation. This is no longer about having technology solutions which are lifted and shifted into any given city. It’s much more about vendors providing cocreation and incubator capabilities to allow for the discovery of solutions.
One particularly thing from Stockholm related to creating virtual environments for elderly residents and others less able to get out and about, for instance at a recreated version of a big stadium in the city. This is one way to make VR/AR about more than just gamers. It’s also interesting a way of using COVID to explore new ways of innovating.
Item #2 on the agenda for today’s podcast is another interesting technology company that I’ve spoken to recently. In this case it’s Stream Analyze. It’s a platform for real-time data analytics. Interestingly it can also work as a client on an edge device with only very limited CPU and memory (100KB of RAM is typically all you need. The approach is highly interactive allowing the developer to build data analysis models directly onto the device, thus taking account of the peculiarities of that device. The tech is very impressive to look at.
What I was really taken with, though, was the extent to which it is designed bottom up to integrate with company systems. I’ll give an example. You could build a financial model in excel and then push it to the machine to, for instance, push the wear and tear costs into a balance sheet. The other thing I absolutely loved was when they talk about the tech they couch it in exactly the right terms, for instance talking to product managers about the product lifecycle and how it can help through that. A refreshing approach, compared to how a lot of technology is sold.
I also wanted to talk about a couple of news items that I noticed this week, but only briefly.
Digital India has adopted the OneM2M standard. If you’re not familiar, OneM2M is a standards body that has developed standard interfaces for the IoT. Now to me that always seemed like a herculean task given the sheer scale of IoT. But it seems to have had more success in smart cities than elsewhere. I suspect because there’s more of a need there for a portable and objectively ‘safe’ option for public investment.
The other two items were Asavie being bought by Akamai. Asavie is an old friend of the Transforma Insights team who we know well. Essentially it does software defined private networks for mobile devices. Really useful for IoT, but not just IoT. Very focused on highly secure connectivity. Akamai makes for a very sensible home, focused as it is on content delivery. Funnily enough Akamai was the company I did probably my first consulting project for back in perhaps 2000, focused on content delivery networks. It seems to have gone from strength to strength over the years and now serves around 1/5th of all web traffic. Given how much is going mobile it seems a sensible tie up.
The other is slightly more unusual. It’s Bright Wolf (an industrial IoT platform) being bought by systems integrator and consulting firm Cognizant. Bright Wolf is a highly specialised company with some top class industrial IoT architects. And with a good roster of clients. For instance it has been working with companies like Caterpillar, which is a pretty good marker. I think it’s the consulting and know-how that is more of the attraction, than the platform itself. That suits Cognizant’s business model.
As highlighted in a recent report put out by Transforma Insights, when picking an IoT platform it’s usually more about the skills and the fit than about the technical capabilities.
For my final topic this week I want to talk a bit about technology and sustainability. The ICT sector is never really thought of as a major energy consumer, but it is increasingly important. Some forecasts predict that by 2030 up to 50% of global energy consumption will be by ICT. So we need to think about the impact of some of the technology areas that we focus on.
Blockchain (or Distributed Ledger more broadly) is an obvious culprit. Bitcoin alone today generates 0.21% of world energy supply, by virtue of bitcoin mining. That puts it between Switzerland and Czech Republic as the equivalent energy use (and carbon footprint) as a medium-sized country. A single transaction is the equivalent to over 25 days of energy use of a single household. And equivalent to almost 800,000 equivalent transactions as Visa. When you look to the concept of sustainability, bitcoin is by definition unsustainable. There were 300,000 bitcoin transactions in Q2 2020 compared to 50 billion by Visa. Bitcoin wouldn’t need to take a large proportion of Visa’s market share in order to dwarf the energy consumption of everything else on the rest of the planet.
Then I think of AI. The energy cost of training and deploying an AI is substantial. A topic for further investigation for me there. And there must, of course, be diminishing returns. At some point the value derived will well exceed the benefit. For instance, what kind of resources had to be ploughed into making Deep Blue a comparable chess player to Garry Kasparov.
Garry Kasparov is Russian and was born in 1963 and was beaten by Deep Blue in 1997. Over the period 1963-1996 (inclusive) the average Russian produced 449.8 tonnes of CO2. If we assume that to hone his skills as a chess player Garry generated a lot more, perhaps we can round up to 1,000 tonnes. What was the collective cost of the people, processing and so on that created Deep Blue. You can bet that it was considerably more than 1,000 tonnes.
AI may be good. But humans are more efficient. Not in cost terms perhaps, but certainly in energy terms. There will be many use cases where the trade off is necessary. If AI is significantly better at spotting cancer on scans, great. But does it pay to use it to tell if someone has selected a can of Coke vs Pepsi in a store? Maybe, maybe not. But I don’t see us having those conversations much yet. It will come.
The final one is IoT. This is, if anything, a carbon sink. The tech industry’s way of balancing the scales. Of course there’s some IoT which uses more power. Most consumer apps, for instance. But offset that against all the energy saving applications, or pre-emptive maintenance or more efficient asset utilisation. Smart metering for instance. Or just smart grid infrastructure. Both of those are responsible for better load balancing, reducing losses and so forth. The phrase ‘a stitch in time saves nine’ could be well applied to the IoT; identifying a potential problem and solving it before it becomes costly, for instance requiring the replacement of a piece of equipment rather than just a simple component. And it’s not just about energy. Other scarce resources too. Much of precision agriculture is predicated on more efficiently using water resources. In California’s central valley there is a massive water shortage and the aquifers have been increasingly emptied. In part this is because they’re growing very water intensive crops. A single almond requires 5 litres of water. If you can farm more precisely, you can perhaps reduce that, or at least keep water use to just the 5 litres rather than 10 or 20.
IoT tips the scales back in the direction of sustainability.
Sustainability is a fascinating topic and one that I’ll come back to again. Im particularly interested in the macro level stuff around the total volume of innovation, the bearing capacity of the earth and our ability to continue as a species. But I’ll come back to that next week I think.
I mentioned at the start about how the unifying theme was about reintroducing the humanity into technology. In smart cities my panellists were very keen to reinforce that it’s by starting with citizen engagement that you make the most successful use of technology. Similarly Stream Analyze’s approach is refreshing because it puts the human process front and center in the adoption of technology. It absolutely makes sense to do that. And the question of sustainability is all about making sure that we’re still around to enjoy the benefits of all this tech. The humans are coming!
A small plug for this week. I spoke with Mark Thirman of the MIT Enterprise Forum for his fireside chat. It’s available on YouTube. I recommend taking a look.
A request: if you’ve enjoyed the podcast I’d be obliged if you could leave a review. It’s much appreciated.
Next week I’ll be covering that next week as well as a mix of technology news and insight on some new tech that I’ve seen recently. And I particularly wanted to take a look at the annual Eclipse Foundation IoT survey, which always makes for interesting reading.
I hope you can join me.
Links to some of the research that I’ve refered to in this week’s show, as well as a transcript of the recording, will be available on the podcast website at WirelessNoodle.com
Thank you for listening to The Wireless Noodle. If you would like to learn more about the research that I do on IoT, AI and more, you can follow me on Twitter at MattyHatton and you can check out TransformaInsights.com.
Thanks for joining me. I’ve been Matt Hatton and you’ve been listening to the Wireless Noodle.