The internet of things (IoT) market in India has gained significant traction in the past year, with businesses realising the significance of connectivity, especially in a Covid-19-inflicted world. Connected te­chnologies are being seen as a driver for im­proving business efficiency, reducing downtime and controlling costs. With the pandemic affecting businesses and supply cha­ins, and acting as a catalyst for remote working, there has been a surge in the number of IoT deployments, especially by en­ter­prises in the manufacturing, automotive, transportation, energy and utility segments.

Globally, 42 billion IoT-connected de­vices are expected by 2025. Further, adoption of IoT and allied technologies is set to grow manyfold, with the IoT market ex­pec­ted to touch $9 billion over the next three years. IoT players, including telecom operators, will, however, have to re­visit their existing infrastructure, business mo­dels and partnerships to fully capitalise on this surge in connected devices.

IoT use cases in telecom

Two of the most common telecom use cases of IoT are asset management and re­mote system monitoring. By using an IoT platform, telecom companies can connect their diverse physical assets to the cloud and remotely manage their operations, in­ves­tigate malfunctions, run firmware up­grades, and keep track of inventory. Te­le­com operators can also utilise their infrastructure to offer new services such as tailored consumer applications, wide area IoT solutions, and IoT-managed services. Us­ing a highly versatile IoT cloud platform, any telecom operator can provide its own IoT solution to a variety of business verticals. Uniquely positioned with unlimited access to network infrastructure and vast pools of user data, communications service providers (CSPs) can provide better performance, wider scale and much better usability than other IT service providers.

IoT is also a crucial part of cloud mi­gration strategies for telecom companies. Apart from driving operational efficiencies, cloud helps CSPs modernise application infrastructure and deliver better customer experiences based on IoT, analytics, machine learning and other tools. In or­der to effectively combine cloud and IoT technologies, CSPs are strategically wo­rking on their partnerships and are gradually internalising these core competencies. CSPs can minimise operational costs by applying IoT technology for software-de­fined networking and network function virtualisation.

IoT is driving digital transformation and innovation in telecom through its applications. The GSMA has stated that expenditure on early deployment of power-wide area networks integrated with IoT is expected to rise by $1.8 trillion by 2026. The evolution of telecom from broadband to a highly intelligent platform played a vital part in the smart home inauguration. A few players in the telecom industry are already acquiring new business values in the smart home sector. An IoT-enabled netwo­rk enables connections between various heterogeneous devices. IoT-driven insights help in the evolution of new smart home technologies such as house automation, ho­me cloud storage and e-health services.

The telco advantage

Telecommunications companies come with larger business-to-business (B2B) pla­ys that can be leveraged to push their IoT offerings. Owning networks, and be­ing able to leverage their experience in servicing clients from key industries such as automotive and utilities give them a head start in the IoT space. Moreover, telcos have the advantage of wireless connectivity. Given that many of the machines and devices that need to be connected are situated in places where wired connectivity is unviable, such as in the middle of a road or in a remote location, wireless connectivity works best.

Indian telcos upping their IoT game

According to Frost and Sullivan’s report titled “Enterprise Mobile Services Re­port”, Bharti Airtel is the market leader in the fast growing cellular IoT space, with a market share of 45.5 per cent. The operator is offering a flexible set of application programming interfaces to eliminate cumbersome integration journeys and allow enterprises to stream the process of connecting, collecting and analysing data through their existing workflow tools. The company is targeting the automobiles, manufacturing, banking, financial services and insurance, utility, and Industry 4.0 verticals to drive growth for its IoT platform and the IoT business as a whole.

MG Motor, Pine Labs, Paytm, Kirlos­kar, BSES, Genus, Kent, Black Buck, Me­ghalaya Power Distribution Corpora­tion Limited and the Odisha Power Trans­mis­sion Company are among the enterprises that are already using Airtel’s IoT solutions. Airtel has built this platform in-ho­use. It is also aiming to create a complete ecosystem through collaborations with start-ups and other players. Further, the company has a larger plan for the device ecosystem. Its parent, Bharti Enter­prises, has collaborated with Dixon to manufacture set-top boxes, routers and net­working devices, including IoT devices.

Meanwhile, the enterprise arm of Vodafone Idea Limited (Vi), Vi Business, has recently launched integrated IoT solutions for enterprises. The offering is de­signed to simplify and accelerate the digital transformation journey for enterprises. Vi has partnered with Tata Consul­tancy Services (TCS) in its endeavour to provide a superior customer experience across ar­e­as such as customer life cycle ma­na­ge­ment, order management, IoT product life cycle management, billing, and de­vice and customer support. TCS has de­ployed HOBS, a cloud-based pre-integrated IoT subscription management platform on a catalogue-driven architecture, to help Vi launch, manage and monetise IoT services rapidly. With this, Vi is well-positioned to capitalise on future growth driven by the government’s push towards “digital India” and “smart cities”. The op­erator has been a strong player in the telco IoT connectivity space, accounting for about 54 per cent market share. It is now looking at garnering 10-12 per cent share in the non-connectivity IoT space as well. The company is leveraging its innovation lab to build these IoT offerings.

Meanwhile, Reliance Jio’s pan-India IoT network, based on narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) technology, is already operati­o­nal, launched in partnership with Sam­sung. Reliance Jio deployed its first commercial NB-IoT service for Tata Power Delhi Distribution Limited’s smart me­ters. In addition, MG Motor India has tied up with Jio to implement IoT features in its upcoming mid-sized SUV. Custo­mers of the SUV will benefit from Jio’s widesp­read internet outreach, along with connectivity, not only in metros but also in small towns and rural areas. Moreover, the operator has reportedly been in advanced talks with original equipment manufacturers to launch its IoT services in India.

Challenges and outlook

Privacy has always been a major concern in India. Through the use of IoT and associated devices, large amounts of personal data, sometimes sensitive in nature, are exchanged. The data networks are delicate and data cloud storage operations are still in the development stage in India. The­refore, data stored in a cloud service and not protected adequately may be acc­essed by unauthorised third parties and leaked, to be used and proce­ssed for un­warranted purposes.

Ensuring effective security is an essential practice in the development and design stage of IoT devices. Principles such as confidentiality, reliability, safety, availability, robustness, survivability, authenticity, resilience, identity management, access control, accountability and utility play key roles in the development of security for IoT-connected devices. Since IoT arran­gements also include the making of similar devices, this homogeneity extends the po­tential impact of any single security weakness to all devices with the same features.

The lack of efficient infrastructure to support the growing usage of IoT devices is another major challenge faced by the industry. Currently, with unsteady and unstable accessibility of internet across the nation, India faces a big hurdle in ensuring strong internet connectivity within its boundaries, especially in the rural areas. The use of IoT devices in areas where in­ter­net availability/bandwidth is not adequate would be a major challenge.

The absence of standard operating procedures for the manufacture and de­si­gn of IoT devices can result in low quality and cheaply designed and configured de­vices, which may have undesirable consequences for users. Without any standards to assist and guide developers and manufacturers, the design of products may re­sult in troublesome operations. There­fore, there is a need to formulate a standard in order to ensure that the quality of the devices and the growth of the industry are effective, efficient and not disruptive.

However, an assessment of market trends in the IoT sector shows that there is both awareness and desire on the part of consumers to be connected and have smart and intelligent systems. With the government’s constant efforts to improve the in­frastructure supporting IoT, this industry is expected to grow at an exponential pace in the coming decade. To this end, challenges such as privacy and security of the devices need to be addressed and regulated in order to ensure that the negative impacts of the IoT ecosystem do not override the potential positive changes it can bring about in the country.