Are the big vendors getting rattled by Sigfox and LoRa?

Good cop: "We need standards to ensure an open ecosystem." Bad cop: "You don't want another WiMax do you?"

Today, Nokia has released a statement calling for open APIs and standards across the IoT landscape. The vendor makes the point that things work better when they are standardised and interoperable, and points out a number of areas where this is not the case for IoT.

According to Nokia, these include things such as “applications enablement, analytics, security, location mapping, indoor positioning and smart sensors”.  Standardised open interfaces are required to break down barriers formed by the development of proprietary technologies in these areas, Nokia said.

A quote garnered from analyst 451Research made the vendor’s point for it: “For future IoT systems, multiple applications from various vendors must work in concert, connected and integrated in the Cloud and at the network edge. Breaking the cycle of building proprietary IoT application silos in market after market will require more adoption of common standards and frameworks with open interfaces to achieve seamless interoperability.”

These are fine words, but do they also portray a nervousness within the vendor that rival technologies are entering its territory, threatening to divert operator investment in IoT technology?

Across Europe, operators are openly flirting, and some are well past the first date stage, with the likes of Actility and Sigfox, not to mention Weightless-N’s NWave. Sigfox is making grand noises about its work in the USA as well, with a target of covering ten major cities. And it’s not just about the network itself, as Nokia’s list makes clear – how and where applications are built and delivered, what data can be extracted and analysed, what other systems (location, indoor connectivity etc) can be accessed will make a difference to what services can be built. Within these areas too we are seeing a greater diversification as “non-telco” platform providers or dedicated analytics companies spot the IoT opportunity.

Although all vendors totally get that they must help operators design systems that are open to “third party” development environments and, indeed, other industries, seeing these third parties forge ahead in an unstructured way makes them nervous. Nokia actually draws attention to this within its own press release, referencing how it turned its Liquid Radio and Apps architecture into a drive to standardise Mobile Edge Computing within ETSI, and how it helped to specify Bluetooth. The implication here is: we know how to build ecosystems and standardise, don’t jeopardise that by going down blind alleys.

Are you sure you don’t want a standard with that?

There’s another angle here too. Vendors are not slow to spot the irony that they are being forced to transform themselves into adopting open development environments, putting themselves and operators’ networks on a more “IT” footing, yet there’s no such onus on, say, a developer of a home security monitoring app, that uses Sigfox for connectivity, to be open to anyone. Operators are being asked here, have you got the means to manage and provision all of these new applications and services in an economical way? Is it enough to rely on the potential commercial upside of openness – greater market opportunity, partnerships – to bring about de facto interoperability through APIs? Are you sure you don’t want a standard with that?

That implicit threat of the blind alley was made more explicitly just a few days ago on another Nokia blog that outright questions whether LoRa and Sigfox are “the new  WiMax“. This piece more or less acknowledges that Sigfox/LoRa are ahead of cellular alternatives right now – just as WiMax was ahead of HSPA. But look what happened to WiMax when it had to compete not with HSPA, but with LTE. It got blown out the water. Is that, the author asks, the fate that awaits these LPWA technologies when R13 IoT features and specs hit the market? We are, of course, being prodded to answer in the affirmative.

Public calls for standards and open interfaces are a sign that the alternative –  inroads being made in operators’ investment budgets by proprietary tech that moves faster and cares little for standards processes – is a real possibility

Note though, that as it calls for greater co-operation and standardisation, the vendor itself was part of a stand-off within 3GPP on the next stage of narrowband IoT that was only “resolved” on 18 September this year at a 3GPP meeting that agreed to harmonise proposals from two different camps. On the one side stood a Nokia/Ericsson/Intel camp proposal that Nokia was still publicly committed to as recently as 11 September. On the other side stood  Huawei and Qualcomm with NB-CIOT: it was this split that was resolved at the September 3GPP meeting. (As an aside: you might also note that the Nokia “WiMax” blog, written a month after the 3GPP meeting, still references NB-LTE, not the 3GPP’s new NB-IOT standard marker.)

Nokia would no doubt say, and with some justification, that it actually showed its commitment to standards by compromising and agreeing to resolve its differences with other 3GPP players and move forward within 3GPP. You could also rightly assume that it was the inroads being made by non-standard technologies that convinced these vendors to make up in public and commit to a single path.

But these niggles aside, the overall point remains. Public calls for standards and open interfaces are a sign that the alternative –  inroads being made into operators’ investment budgets by proprietary tech that moves faster and cares little for standards processes – is currently a real possibility.





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