The Internet of Things – New Opportunities in a Mobile First Continent

Deepak Gusain – General Manager Tata Communications Africa & Middle East

Can the phenomenon of the Internet of Things (IoT) deliver real benefits for people, institutions and enterprises in the African continent? One way to answer the question is to consider what sort of benefits could be achieved and then circle around to identifying how these benefits can be realised.

Across a continent that already has significant infrastructure challenges, IoT represents a way to expand how mobile communications technology is used. It could open some very interesting new doors to progress. The IoT should not be thought of just in its narrow machine-to-machine communications medium, but is better appreciated when we consider how it provides options to monitor and analyse information sent from remote locations. This can include information about agriculture and crop conditions, medical monitoring for citizens, management of new sources of power supply, or support for remote education programmes.

Potential use cases for IoT expand into many different fields and applications, which in turn create new opportunities for economic development, associated job creation and social improvement. The challenge for countries in Africa is how to overcome relatively expensive infrastructure and transmission costs, as well as existing skills shortages. In many parts of Africa, the cost of cellular connectivity for data services is prohibitively high. This means that IoT using a standard approach to cellular connectivity is not cost effective. When the additional challenge of power supply (or lack of it) is taken into account, it might seem that IoT is one more possibility that may not fulfil its potential for Africa.

For IoT to be both viable and valuable throughout Africa, we need to think about a different approach. An approach that goes beyond arbitrary national borders, individual regulatory regimes and the constraints of in-country licenced mobile provision.

Mobile Network as a Service

In the past decade, new ways to manage and deliver virtualised information systems have been developed, with acronyms such as SaaS, PaaS and IaaS. Recently, a service that has gained traction in the communications industry, and particularly the IP communications sector is communication platform as a Service (CPaaS), a cloud-based approach to providing a platform that integrates communication capabilities with applications. A logical next step beyond CPaaS is the idea of mobile network as a service (MNaaS). MNaaS is cloud-based, providing a platform to develop, run, manage and integrate mobile communications services, using application programming interfaces (APIs) without having to build resource intensive infrastructure.

Combined with mobile applications, on-demand models and digital enterprise services,
MNaaS has the potential to enable new and innovative business models for organisations in multiple industries. In the context of the IoT, this approach enables access to
applications, connected devices, and data via mobile networks, irrespective of national borders or commercial access restrictions. With the launch of a new IoT service,
applications that require domestic or cross-border management often encounter challenges such as potential multi-country deployment and cross-border roaming issues that limit access and usage. An organisation working on one or multiple IoT projects requires access to IoT communications platform providers in-region and this involves the need for multiple roaming agreements, with associated increased costs.

The alternative is for an organisation to work with one of its local Mobile Network Operators (MNO) to negotiate access and roaming on its behalf, but MNOs might not be able to provide the right mix of services beyond their own national borders.

MNaaS makes us of a digital platform approach, complemented by aggregated mobile network function virtualization, so it is easy to enable cross-border mobile connectivity as well as domestic multi-network connectivity. This approach enables domestic, pan African or beyond, data and voice connectivity across domestic and international mobile networks. It means that connectivity is liberated from the confines of a single network or single country regulatory environment, to become a pan-African capability. This in turn liberates the users of the service from the constraints of any single network, to create an African mobile virtual network environment to support IoT services, with aggregated pricing to bring pricing down.

Enabling Greater Flexibility and Lower Costs

In line with this vision to reduce access and cost restrictions for mobile IoT services, Tata Communications has partnered with South African ICT provider Dreamtime Technologies to deploy a range of IoT connectivity and MVNE services across southern Africa. The company aims to go beyond servicing purely commercial verticals such as connected vehicles, asset tracking or smart city projects, and hopes to address development and socio-economic sectors including agriculture, healthcare and education applications. The company hopes to be able to help governments and individual enterprises access and use the Internet of Things to boost infrastructure enhancements and digital transformation programs. Tata Communications’ presence in Africa and partnership with DT-Tech presents entrepreneurs, start-up companies, NGOs and government institutions with the opportunity to participate in the IoT driven economy on a domestic, pan-African or even global scale.

It’s Up to You

Across Africa governments and regulators are taking a keen interest to develop an environment that is conducive to sustainable growth and innovation. Noticeably, the need for an ecosystem of stakeholders to work together is higher than ever before. The potential benefits of IoT based solutions are becoming apparent across multiple sectors. Organisations need to find cost effective ways to access IoT based services and the companies that provide the services need to ensure that IoT solutions add value for their customers.

Communications companies need to identify new communications and network strategies that create business opportunities and partnerships. Providing accessible mobile connectivity to create an African mobile virtual network as a service offering, can help to provide people, organisations and governments with secure connectivity for IoT. The benefits to enabling access for Africans to the internet of things could create new business models, economic growth, new employment opportunities and citizen empowerment. All that is needed is the shared vision to make it happen.

The views and opinions in this piece reflect those of Tata Communications and not necessarily those of GSMA.

Deepak is the Director and Head of Business Development for Mobility, IoT and Collaboration Services for Middle East, Central Asia and Africa region for Tata Communications, a part of US$ 108 billion Tata Group of Companies. In this role, he is responsible for developing new initiatives and business across Mobility, Internet of Things (IoT), Cloud, Security and Managed Services for enterprises, service providers and mobile operators in the region.