China Mobile International (CMI) and its parent company have sought to go large with their concept of “big connectivity” in the past few years, capitalising on the growing digitalisation of a whole array of “things”.
Big connectivity is ramping up further as 5G makes its debut in a rising number of countries around the world, in preparation for the widening variety of applications the new technology enables internationally in the internet-of-things (IoT) and machine-to-machine (M2M) arenas. Indeed, CMI parent China Mobile’s commercial launch of 5G in its own domestic market in November 2019 promised to lend further impetus to its IoT offering.
The company has already put itself in a strong position to provide services to customers in this burgeoning sector, as seen in the surge in growth in the offerings it has. By the end of 2019, China Mobile had 884 million IoT customers, with the number almost doubling year-on-year. In the first half of 2019, meanwhile, the company saw its IoT-derived revenue rise more than 40 per cent year-on-year, reaching over RMB5 billion (£550 million).
Wider industry forecasts also indicate the market’s huge potential. Total IoT connections worldwide are, for example, predicted to rise 160 per cent between 2018 and 2024, from 8.6 billion to 22.3 billion, according to figures in a recent Ericsson report. Among these, cellular IoT connections are forecast to quadruple over the same time period to just over 4 billion.
And given the significant traction the company has gained in its domestic IoT market, CMI can harness the extensive learnings it has gained from that in delivering services to carrier customers – something it is supplementing by strengthening its capabilities through investing in systems, platform and human resources.
While the company’s main market is China, it has also been expanding its work overseas to capitalise on the opportunity it sees for big connectivity on a wider scale. A key target for this are the “Belt and Road” countries of Asia, Africa and Europe, in line with its domestic market’s national strategy to boost land and maritime infrastructure between the regions.
Considering these trends in addition to China Mobile’s position as the world’s largest mobile operator, with close to a billion customers, and CMI’s extensive network, the company has a major part to play in enabling the connection of all sorts of “things” at an unprecedented scale.
Single point of contact
Andrew Niu, chief partnership officer at CMI, says one way in which the company can help wholesale and enterprise customers to rapidly grasp opportunities in the IoT sector is through its ability to offer a single point of contact and contract. “The simplest way [to gain access to the market] is to have one contract with one carrier that provides global connectivity through a single platform,” he says. “The single-contract and single-platform approach helps enterprise customers reduce complexity in terms of mobile connectivity.”
The IoT connectivity management platform offered under CMI’s iConnect offering is provided on dedicated network infrastructure aimed at supplying fast, smooth and comprehensive 4G coverage throughout China, along with 2G, 3G and 4G global roaming.
The offering provides customers with services including M2M SIM cards, plus the option of connectivity and lifecycle management for these products, platform integration services and a variety of data, SMS and voice plans to meet needs for different scenarios and optimise coverage at both a local and global level.
On top of that, customers have access to a self-service portal that includes billing and invoicing services, and facilitates the management of connections on a massive scale via a web user interface or API – a key facet given the immense number of new IoT devices and applications that will be coming online in the next few years, some of which are difficult to even imagine yet.
China Mobile has been working hard to present partners with the most conducive environment possible for driving the types of IoT products and services being demanded by the global market, allowing them to test and experiment with new types of offering.
The operator has, for example, created an open lab for IoT innovation in Beijing, where partners can test services based on the low-power network technologies Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) and LTE for Machine-Type Communications (LTE-M) using 3GPP-compliant equipment for those purposes. This technology is set to be key for moving forward in a segment dubbed “massive IoT”, which involves all kinds of business cases, including energy and water meters, medical wearables, tracking sensors for transport and a whole multitude of other devices with low-power requirements for operation.
The company is carrying out NB-IoT initiatives in other segments too, showing the wide-reaching possibilities of this type of technology. For example, China Mobile cites smart parking pilots it has run in conjunction with partner DTMobile, with a view to helping cities improve management of parking assets so they can boost their revenues, as well as slashing congestion and pollution.
Furthermore, testing conducted by China Mobile has indicated that NB-IoT can be delivered underground, enabling, for example, utility meters to transmit readings from a basement.
Meanwhile, the company’s partners are also able to use its open lab to test technologies and functions such as voice over LTE (VoLTE), power-saving modes and equipment interoperability, as well as SMS and non-IP communications. In addition, China Mobile offers software development kits (SDKs), which can be used by developers to support the applications they make.
On top of that, China Mobile has developed an open IoT application enablement platform known as OneNET, with the aim of enabling business customers access to a centralised platform allowing them to rapidly and cheaply integrate end-to-end services and then use them in various industry verticals when needed.
The platform aims to offer an intelligent, high-quality centralised cloud service that supports a variety of protocols and APIs. In line with this, OneNET enables data to be transferred from IoT devices and, conversely, extracted for integration into developer applications. Wrapping in big data services, the platform supports different types of connectivity, sensors and intelligent hardware.
All these services provide a robust framework by which CMI, China Mobile and their customers and partners can grow a strong ecosystem of IoT products and solutions – meeting the demands of the markets of the future.
Building an ecosystem
With CMI pointing to industry sectors including connected cars, equipment monitoring, finance and the sharing economy as growing IoT segments, the company and its parent have also been getting involved in a wide variety of other initiatives aimed at putting themselves at the forefront of the global IoT market.
The carrier believes one of the crucial elements to getting the whole ecosystem working effectively is collaboration between providers, especially to support the big transformation that the IoT sector will undergo in the developing 5G era. In this sense, CMI is well-prepared, running a global partnership initiative for 5G that it set up over four years ago to bolster the joint development of borderless products and services.
The Hand-in-Hand Program (hi-H Program), which now has 26 members, including many major global operators, has a footprint covering almost 3 billion mobile subscribers around the world. It encourages the sharing of innovative concepts and use cases through workshops and working groups, as well as developments to aid platform interoperability and the use of local SIM card resources (see box: “Hand-in-Hand Program (hi-H Program”).
Hand-in-Hand Program (hi-H Program)
With a view to helping build an ecosystem that will enable services such as 5G and IoT to thrive globally, China Mobile International (CMI) launched its Hand-in-Hand Program (hi-H Program) in 2015. Comprising collaborators that include multiple major operators from across the world, it has now grown to 26 members.
Most recently, Vietnam-based Viettel Business Solutions (VTS) became the 26th member of the initiative in July 2019, joining the likes of Airtel Business, AT&T, Chunghwa Telecom, Korea Telecom, Orange, PLDT, Sparkle, StarHub, T-Mobile, Tata Communications, Telenor, Telia Company, Telstra, True, Turk Telekom International, VEON and Vodafone.
The idea of the Hi-H Program, which operates under the principles of openness, connection and collaboration, is to encourage cooperation through workshops and working groups, developing a multi-party hub to maximise efficiency and resources, share experiences and boost innovation and technological advances.
Ultimately, the aim is to find real synergies to help the big up-and-coming technologies to take off so the whole industry can benefit, increasing the scope for provision of increasingly needed seamless, borderless products and services worldwide.
Among topics discussed at a hi-H event at the end of last year were 5G+IoT, and the latest application developments, innovative concepts and use cases.
Niu thinks this kind of initiative can help operators to maximise the potential of services in that sector. “The hi-H Program facilitates discussions to help members move forward with their 5G roaming service roadmap and keep them abreast on the latest IoT developments,” he says. “Together, we can build a smarter, more integrated IoT ecosystem.”
At the cutting edge
Some of China Mobile’s activities in the industrial sector have also shown the potential for use cases enabled by the combination of 5G and IoT, wrapping in some of the most cutting-edge concepts as the industry has moved towards the latest generation of mobile technology – such as network slicing, edge computing and data intelligence.
This comes along with China Mobile being granted a commercial 5G licence in 2019 in its domestic market, quickly followed by the launch of its 5G+ brand ahead of the technology’s launch. The company expects that move to have all kinds of implications for expanding the scope of smart IoT applications and harnessing data to aid social development, creating opportunities on an unprecedented scale (see box: “5G for smart IoT”).
As an example, one of the most interesting fields involves a prototype China Mobile created of an automated guided vehicle (AGV) in collaboration with Ericsson, a technology that the two demonstrated at the Mobile World Congress Shanghai 2019.
This could be a key growth segment, as AGVs gain momentum as a use case with real potential for improving efficiency and reducing costs in manufacturing, the port sector and other industries – with 5G making equipment such as AGV tractors, pallet movers and forklift machines more viable.
Testing of the prototype indicated the potential for incorporating processes that can make technologies even more efficient and faster. These include network slicing, which can help create dedicated networks for industrial use and aid with data security, and edge computing, which meets the need for bringing data ever closer to the edge of the network to make traffic more local and drastically reduce latency while improving stability and reducing the complexity of AGV equipment.
On top of all this, the collection of data in edge clouds enables in-depth analyses to help further improve processes and integrate data from other manufacturing systems, building the intelligence of the overall machinery over time so that it can enable slicker operations.
5G for smart IoT
China Mobile expects the deep integration between information technology and the economy enabled by the upcoming launch of 5G to allow an expanding range of services and applications based on smart internet-of-things (IoT), and more real-time information that will promote the development of a smart society.
Among the applications it sees as having major potential for addressing needs in modern society and boosting social development are:
Having laid the groundwork in anticipation of some serious IoT growth in the coming years, CMI certainly has no intention of slowing down its development in this sector, says Niu – with plans to develop both “horizontally” by expanding network coverage and “vertically” by boosting the scope for applications in different industries.
“CMI will continue to work with industry players to drive IoT development and innovation, and we will see more applications available to a wide range of sectors,” he says. By maintaining a focus on this segment, CMI hopes to truly capitalise on the opportunities of the 5G era – catapulting not just its own business into the future, but those of partners across the industry and their customers.
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