According to one estimate, the IoT (Internet of Things) could generate nearly $2.0 trillion in revenue for mobile operators worldwide ($1.8 trillion, to be exact). That's ‘trillion' with a ‘t.' And that estimate is from 2017. Prognosticators have only gotten more bullish about IoT technology's potential in the last couple of years—and it's not hard to figure out why. As this technology moves from its initial deployment in primarily industrial contexts into people worldwide's homes and businesses, the number of connected devices at work worldwide continues to grow in massive numbers. There are already tens of billions of them, and by McKinsey's reckoning, 127 new devices are connected every second.
This presents a set of incredible opportunities for telco operators. Not only does it put you in a position to provide more robust services to factories, transportation networks, and entire cities and towns, it gives you new opportunities to add value for your subscribers. Yes, the average revenue per device connection will drop off in the IoT era, but the sheer volume must be reasonably enticing. All that said, this seismic shift in the way people access telecommunications networks won't be without its challenges. Offering up the right services for IoT users will involve grappling with new standards and expectations—to say nothing of effectively verifying service.
What is NB-IoT?
Okay, first things first, what changes will you have to make to your network to accommodate the new kind of traffic associated with the IoT? After all, you will be dealing with increased device volume, much of it from devices that have to conserve power (so that users don't have to replace or recharge their batteries frequently). This particular challenge—offering connectivity that doesn't drain the device battery as rapidly as typical cell network usage—has led to the rise of LPWAN, which stands for low-power wide-area network. This is more or less what it sounds like: a type of wireless network designed to empower long-range, low bit rate communication at low power.
The 3GPP has already set a standard for LPWAN networks as a larger component of its NB-IoT standard. At this moment, NB-IoT is the go-to for most IoT-centric offerings. Critically, this standard doesn't use LTE technology, leading to increased costs when you're first rolling out your service. At the same time, NB-IoT deployments don't require gateways in the same way that standards like LTE-M and LTE-V (both designed to use LTE bands) were explicitly conceived for manufacturing and vehicles, respectively) do, which has the potential to keep costs in check. Of course, the standards mentioned above are designed around solving the same set of concerns, precisely:
- Avoiding frequency interference, such that devices can maintain high-quality connections;
- Maintaining communication at long ranges, particular for use cases like autonomous vehicles;
- Suiting the specific needs of any particular use case, e.g., powering higher bandwidth usage for something like video surveillance.
Given the fragmentation of use cases and devices, there's no one-size-fits-all method of preparing your network for the IoT—which means you're going to have to consider your target use cases and subscribers carefully.
IoT Implementation and Testing Challenges
As you can see from the section above, rolling out a new network offering that can support IoT usage will be a complex process—one that will mean significant changes for your network. Once we start talking about 5G, which is expected to play a significant but unproven role in future IoT deployments, that complexity only increases. And, at the end of the day, that complexity all flows downstream to your testing department. Because the architecture of your IoT-enabled network is going to involve a host of new layers designed to connect IoT platforms and devices to the IoT Core, the EPC core, and the internet in a way that's comprehensible, testers will need to leverage a variety of different IoT devices and examine how they behave under test on a protocol level. This means going beyond ‘mere' end-to-end tests to correctly understand whether the technology is connecting with your core network.
At the same time that you're grappling with this complexity, you also need to increase your focus on reliability. Because many early IoT deployments will occur in high-leverage environments (e.g., an emergency call device in a car, a sensor in an autonomous vehicle that alerts other connected vehicles to its movements, or a monitor for heavy industrial equipment), testers have to have more confidence in their network functionality than ever. They need to be sure that no device will be kicked off the network for no reason, just as they need to be sure that any device that dies or disconnects will be immediately obvious.
Automating IoT Technology
At this point, you might be getting the distinct impression that IoT-enabled network offerings would be challenging to test by hand—and even within some automation solutions. Considering all of the changes that the IoT will bring to bear on your network, this may seem untenable. Automation here is critical, and whether you're working with existing automation technology or hunting for a new vendor, you'll need a solution that's dynamic, flexible, and intuitive enough to empower you to build out your IoT functionality with a minimum of hiccups.
How can you tell if you tell of automation provides the right level of flexibility? Well, it should be able to incorporate new devices into existing workflows as soon as they come on the market for starters. Beyond that, the solution should be able to test access to application servers and other network elements under mobility (through RF signal attenuation) to recreate the complexity of a typical IoT deployment. From there, the hope would be for a framework that dashes and repeatable enough to enable easy regression testing any time you make a change to your network. With these elements in place, you can begin to create reliable testing workflows for this new and emerging set of use cases.