By Alex Lawrence
The telecoms industry appears to be developing along several parallel lines at present, driven by a variety of factors.
Governments globally have realized the significance of broadband connectivity for their citizens, especially to cope with disruptions to daily life. Although there are still undeniable pressures to decarbonise and improve sustainability in line with Sustainable Development Goals, the drive to bring connections to a wider populace is common to most countries.
Telecoms companies, meanwhile, need to break the decade-long cycle of investing in new generations of technology and trying to recoup their money. At the same time, they face the pressure to “keep the lights on” while users employ increasing quantities of data.
While 5G is being rolled out, upgraded to standalone, and both 5G Advanced and 6G radio capabilities are in development, other solutions are being developed that can help support these pressures. 6GWorld spoke to two of the companies exhibiting at MWC who are looking at new ways to connect that can exist alongside evolving cellular connectivity.
“We’re focused on improving the experience indoors, whether that be enterprise or the home, or in factories,” explained the CEO of PureLiFi, Alistair Banham.
Li-Fi as a concept has been around a while, simply using the visible light spectrum to transmit data. However, it looks closer to coming of age. “We’ve got very neat products that are fully certified, fully ruggedized and supplying in volume to the defense industry today,” Banham explained. “We have devices now because there’s a lot of work done in fibre comms, and some of the learnings from fibre comms are now being directly translated into the wireless world.”
The 802.11bb standard has brought Li-Fi in line with other standards for wireless communications. “We’ve also demonstrated Wi-Fi to Li-Fi handover, which is what this standardisation can do.”
This gives Li-Fi as an indoor service, running over ethernet or powerline to existing lightbulbs, a number of opportunities. While the defence industry is using it for secure communications – as it doesn’t penetrate walls like Wi-Fi or cellular – the technology also has potential to be employed within homes.
“In the visible light and optical world we have 2,600 times the entire radio spectrum,” PureLiFi CTO Harold Haas observed – which, like Wi-Fi, is unregulated globally. This can be used to create very narrow areas of very high bandwidth, for example through spotlights, which can serve the demands of emerging use cases such as 8K video, AR/VR and more. Banham goes one step further.
“You can have a very thin client or offload a lot of signal processing from that AR/VR client into the light bulb, which is our edge computing device,” he said. “We are really driving networking with edge computing into a new dimension. The light bulb I see as the edge computing neuron of the future – you have many of them distributed and they connect with each other.”Truly Different
Meanwhile, Truphone CEO Ralph Steffens spoke with 6GWorld about a couple of major moves from the company. Firstly, an announcement last week that Truphone would offer free eSIMS to device makers looks set to make waves. This is a bold step, but based on hesitation from many device makers, especially in IoT.
“OEMs or chip makers are concerned if they put this eSIM capability into their devices and have to pay for it. They have no confidence of how many percent of these devices will actually connect, because they have no experience of it,” Steffens explained.
He is keen to emphasise that his plan is to take the risk out of the OEMs’ decision making. If an OEM decides to integrate Truphone’s technology, “Your bill of materials changes by a grand total of zero. Then if you or your customer enable the capability? Yes, we do charge then – but only then, so my revenue is aligned to your cashflow. Basically, I take all the risk, you take no risk.”
This changes the business model considerably for device manufacturers, making it a relatively easy decision to integrate eSIM alongside or instead of Wi-Fi capability. This, Steffens noted, goes hand in hand with changes in the module market.
“What you had to pay 25 dollars for two or three years ago is now maybe five or six, and that will continue to drop. So we will achieve modules for two or three dollars in the future. That may be still slightly more expensive than a Wi-Fi chip, but obviously it gives you a completely different use case and a lot more security,” he explained.
The outcome of both factors? We may well start to see more of the less expensive IoT devices joining the mobile networks, thanks to cellular security controls. In the case of cheaper devices, connections using NB-IoT or 4G are likely to be popular for years to come, both due to their widespread global reach and a lack of demand for, or need for, broadband services on relatively cheap items.
There is a third reason for expecting a growth in connected devices. Coinciding with the opening of MWC, Truphone announced a partnership with satellite NB-IoT provider Skylo to deliver satellite connectivity through its software and eSIMs.
“The exciting bit about this is that IOT devices will work out of the box – without a change of antenna design, without a change of chipsets, without a change of the product,” Steffens enthused.
“It’s not slideware, it works. We have connected existing, bog-standard asset trackers which you can buy on Amazon; we do an over the air update of our SIM; then we can ship it to Antarctica and it works.”
Simple device-to-satellite connectivity is a new concept. While Truphone isn’t the only provider of direct-to-satellite services (6GWorld recently interviewed an innovative company doing exactly this), the lack of any extra hardware to run the connection is new.
All of this innovation at the radio layer should be welcomed. As we drive towards an increasingly connected environment there is an argument to suggest that diversity in access technologies should be encouraged, provided that there is a way to unify and control services further back.
While radio engineers will enthuse over mmWave and Terahertz connectivity, the true revolution may lie in bringing together this diversity into one coherent whole to orchestrate and manage – something that Deutsche Telekom CEO Tim Hoettges may agree with, according to Steffens. He tells the story of an investor relations presentation Hoettges gave.
“Tim was talking about how they have to change. The whole ecosystem is shifting and if you are not an orchestrator, you have no right to exist. He said that one of his major objectives is to move the company to become an orchestrator”.