With over 14 million cases globally, COVID-19 has caused significant disruption across all sectors, including IoT. Delays to physical roll-outs and maintenance of IoT devices and networks are occurring globally with varying travel restrictions and lockdown measures.
While the pandemic initially slowed the manufacturing, distribution, and implementation of IoT projects, it also effectively demonstrated how reliant our society is on the technology that keeps us connected. IoT device adoption in supply chains will play a role in mitigating future disruption caused by the virus, as well as making processes more efficient to get roll-outs back on track.
Required Evolutions for IoT Roll-Outs
Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) networks are often expansive and have been designed to scale with growing operations. These IoT networks often consist of a large number of small form factor devices such as sensors and processors that require engineers to install and connect to each IoT device. As opportunities for physical site visits to provision a device have been limited throughout the pandemic, further deployments have been reduced.
As seen in Figure 1, the total number of cellular IoT devices is forecasted to reach 1 billion by 2024; rising from over 320 million in 2020. However, the embedded SIM (eSIM) has created the need for new frameworks for cellular IoT roll-outs; these frameworks need to account for the varying requirements of service providers in the industrial, enterprise, and consumer IoT markets.
With companies tightening their belts as the economic impact of the pandemic hits, cellular IIoT can help bring cost savings. Devices in the IIoT often only require limited connectivity, such as Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) that leverages low duty cycles to connect to the network. This low cost per connection is increasing the popularity of these cellular connections, although current roll-out procedure complications have limited growth.
Hardware vendors are also increasingly looking to reduce the size of their devices. This trend is most notable in LPWA equipment as they have fewer hardware requirements. The small form factor often means that the implementation frequently requires specialist tools as any built in user interface is not included on the device. Embedded modules and management platforms that create new frameworks are tools that can enable a smoother deployment and allow for remote management.
For traditional SIMs, much of this implementation process is still done at the physical location at which the device will be located during its operational lifetime. Remote SIM Provisioning (RSP), enabled by embedded modules, means that a large degree of this process can be done before any implementation at a central location where multiple devices can be configured at once. Once the unit is in the correct location, RSP enables it to be connected to cellular networks with minimal physical interaction. This reduces the demand for specialist engineers that need to implement a multitude of devices spread out across a large geographical area; a process that would have been made increasingly difficult during the early stages of the pandemic.
The learning curve currently facing the market has evidently been accelerated by the impact of COVID-19. The heightened emphasis on the benefits of IoT connectivity has essentially forced IoT service users to adapt to these new frameworks because they were unable to use the existing processes that they were accustomed to.
Post COVID-19 Cellular IoT Roll-outs
It is important to note that cellular IoT roll-outs have continued throughout the pandemic, but at a slower rate as IoT service users became increasingly hesitant about plans. As a result, the aforementioned ‘learning curve’ with remote provisioning of IoT devices has needed to accelerate as IoT service users switch to use remote services for IoT roll-outs.
We should view this as an ongoing opportunity for eSIMs in the industrial and enterprise space, with IoT service users no longer locked into long-term connectivity contracts with a sole operator. As the prevalence of embedded modules increases, so does the fairness of pricing and the flexibility available to these end-users.
There are some steps to fully exploiting the benefits of the embedded module:
- Migrating the remote provisioning process to a centralized online platform that can be accessed by multiple users. This is essential as these networks can comprise thousands of connected devices, and will only continue to grow. Remote provisioning enables standardized updates across the whole network and for individualized management of portions of the network, based on a user’s needs.
- Verifying and authenticating connections must be seamless and integrated into remote management services. Early IoT services used proprietary authentication services which developed into a market that had a high degree of fragmentation when it came to large scale deployments. We have seen numerous scenarios unfold in which devices would not be able to authenticate properly and thus provided security risks to the end-user.
- Utilizing devices based on cellular IoT standards is critical. As the number and scale of IoT networks increases, the efficiency of the provisioning process must increase to handle the future acceleration of the growth of IoT roll-outs. Offering services that can cater to the many different use cases in the IoT market means that products and devices need to share a common core of protocols in order to remain interoperable and manageable.
The importance of IoT ecosystems at all levels, including the device, network, and applications, cannot be understated. As the benefits of leveraging cellular networks for IoT purposes become more well-known, we will see an increasing amount of previously unconnected devices becoming part of IoT networks. The need for secure and reliable connections will continue to grow over the next five years, as the demand for real-time monitoring and management of operations increases. In turn, this will escalate the demand for comprehensive solutions that can manage the roll-outs of these devices across increasingly complex IoT networks.
How Could IoT Deployments Assist in Mitigating the Impacts of the Pandemic?
eSIMs can provide flexibility and scalability for IoT global deployments. They are programmable over-the-air, which supports current demands by seamlessly transitioning between various network subscriptions in real-time. With the right provider, eSIMs can offer complete connectivity with a large range of options so that, regardless of the country of deployment, multinational SIMs or local profiles are available to assist in the launch of IoT networks.
The ongoing pandemic is likely to provide several ‘learning opportunities’ for the cellular IoT market. Most notably, there is a need for more efficient cellular IoT deployments, to enable easy remote management and reduce operational costs in an uncertain economic climate. However, the ecosystem contains several stakeholders who all need to continue to collaborate on these processes to maximize their potential.
The pandemic has highlighted the benefits of cellular IoT technologies, particularly where remote environments are concerned. Educating the stakeholders on these benefits and the return on investment that can be accomplished will lead to accelerated adoption in sectors including healthcare, smart cities and agriculture.
Healthcare is the most notable sector that could have benefited from larger IoT presence during the early stages of the pandemic, particularly the ability to monitor citizens and early symptoms. The real benefit of taking this approach is the availability of data and the time it takes to be delivered. A key issue facing IoT adoption in the healthcare industry is the disparate systems in use in multiple countries, and in the worst cases, within the same country itself. IoT services within the industry have the potential to unify these systems to a certain degree. This global pandemic should be viewed as an opportunity to assess the future of healthcare industries; a future that needs to be centred on the potential advantages that IoT technologies can bring.
Evolving Operator Roles in Cellular IoT Deployments
Operators are increasingly moving away from a Capital Expenditure (CAPEX) model towards an Operational Expenditure (OPEX) model. This is most apparent in the deployment and expansion of 5G networks, which has highly reliant software-defined network components compared to previous cellular technologies. Despite the severe global disruption in the first six months of COVID-19, MNOs have pressed on with their 5G networks. By 2025, 5% of 5G connections are anticipated to be attributable to IoT, representing a revenue opportunity of $8 billion in that year.
Operators have already identified growth in cellular IoT demand, with Tier 1 operators setting up programs to encourage the development of eSIMs in IoT devices. This collaboration between operators and other stakeholders has been key to increasing the impact of eSIMs on IoT markets.
Many recent operator IoT efforts have focused on consumer devices. The IIoT market provides different challenges, market drivers and opportunities than the consumer aspect of the IoT. As a result, we’ve seen different sets of hardware vendors, end-users and use cases emerging. However, the operators remain the constant provider of the underlying cellular connectivity that all devices will operate with.
Looking to the Future
It has been said that one of the lasting impacts of the pandemic has been to accelerate digitization. That necessity has forced innovation in unexpected spaces in the IoT, and also shows how cellular IoT in particular can really help lessen the impact of movement restrictions.