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Huawei: Master Ecosystem-Builder in IoT

Ken Wieland

Wangcheng Jiang, president of IoT solutions at Huawei Technologies, is clear about what he thinks is necessary to pump up cellular IoT growth. "The most important thing is the ecosystem," he said.

Jiang was speaking at the one-day IoT Business Acceleration Summit, hosted by Huawei, at this year's CeBiT trade fair in Hannover, Germany. The event explored ways to accelerate enterprise IoT adoption in Europe and, underlining Jiang's commitment to build an extensive and open ecosystem, carried input from the supplier's numerous technology partners. Among them were Bosch, Pietro Fiorentini, Globaltronics, Pessl Instruments, Quectel, Q-loud, Sercomm and Yi Qi Software. Vodafone and Telecom Italia provided perspective from the mobile operator community.

Despite the large number of partner speakers at the event, they represented only a small fraction of Huawei's overall IoT ecosystem. As of the end of May 2018, Huawei had more than 1,300 partners using its IoT portfolio. The size lends credence to the claim that Huawei lies at the heart of IoT ecosystem-building.

Aside from radio access network (RAN) connectivity, Huawei's IoT resumé includes Boudica chipsets and OceanConnect, a cloud-based IoT platform. It also offers over 200 northbound application programming interfaces (APIs), designed to help the app developer community leverage OceanConnect functionality.

"By using our northbound APIs, developers can concentrate on app logic," said Xin Liu, Huawei's development director of IoT platform business. "They don't have to worry about device management."

Another way OceanConnect helps app developers is that it comes pre-integrated with over 40 use-case templates. These, says Huawei, can easily be adopted (and adapted) to speed up IoT deployment. Initial focus areas of OceanConnect are public utilities, connected car, industrial IoT (or Industrie 4.0 as it's known in Germany) and smart home.

Jiang flagged that Huawei already has experience of large-scale cellular IoT rollouts in China, covering the likes of smart gas, smart air-conditioners and smart fire detectors. He argued that Huawei's expertise (and ecosystem) can kick-start similar-sized projects in Europe.

One large-scale OceanConnect project already up and running is a connected-car collaboration with Groupe PSA, a French car manufacturer. The firm counts Peugeot, Citroën and DS among its brands. From connecting the first PSA car onto OceanConnect in March 2018, Jiang said more than 5 million vehicles were now hooked up in Europe and China. "We don't have to wait for 5G to do V2X [vehicle-to-everything] -- we can do it on 4.5G," he said.

Overcoming challenges
For all the progress, Jiang highlighted some challenges that threatened to slow down IoT growth if not handled well. One was "integration verification," which Huawei is addressing at its numerous Open Labs, three of which are based in Europe (Munich, Paris, Dusseldorf). Through its own certification process, Huawei is putting different vendor devices through their paces, making sure they properly integrate with OceanConnect. "We also verify device performance, which is essential," added Jiang.

Another potential obstacle is how to handle device management in a simple, fast and cost-effective way. To tackle the problem, Huawei is firmly focused on chipset development and LiteOS, the supplier's open source lightweight operating system specially designed for low-power, wide-area (LPWA) networks.

A key chipset function to get right, said Jiang, is firmware upgrades over the air (FOTA). "This is not our top one priority, it's our top zero priority," he stressed. Jiang noted that continuous FOTA improvements have been made since it was first introduced with the NB-IoT Boudica 120 chipsets, which became available in June 2017, in partnership with China Telecom. "We can now support differential firmware upgrades, not just the full version, and all within a short time using bandwidth requirements," said Jiang.

Boudica 150 chipsets are scheduled to start shipping in large volumes before the end of June 2018. They can support more frequency bands and higher throughput speeds than its Boudica 120 predecessor. "More bandwidth means more business cases," said Gang Dong, VP of Huawei's western European region. The latest version also supports 3GPP Releases 13 and 14, which means greater functionality, including multicasting, Boudica 120 is restricted to Release 13.

What might grab most attention from device-makers, however, is a Huawei innovation that allows integration of the microcontroller unit (MCU) with the Boudica 150 chipset to create a single-chip solution. According to Jiang, this will bring module cost down towards about US$1-2. "The device appliance can now be inside the chipset," explained Jiang. "There's no need for the MCU to be outside."

Huawei has also managed to find a way of doing Datagram Transport Layer Security (DTLS) more cost-efficiently. In what the supplier dubs "DTLS plus," Huawei successfully made a proposal to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) on a new protocol definition. It trims down the number of DTLS messages between device and network, ensuring more efficient data encryption. "DTLS security used to account for around an additional 30% of power consumption, but we've cut that down substantially," said Jiang. "China Telecom and China Mobile plan to adopt the new [IETF] protocol."

Many of Huawei executives at the one-day summit referred to the supplier's "3T+1M" concept, which was first introduced in June 2017. Pitched as a way to ensure end-to-end cybersecurity, 3T refers to three technologies (device, network and platform), while 1M refers to a single O&M process. "With 3T+1M, which gives an end to end view on IoT services, customers can save lots of time on troubleshooting," said Xin Liu.

We're in IoT business
Huawei partners attending the summit were fulsome in their praise of the Chinese supplier. Joerg Lehnich, senior director of the radio access division of Taiwan-headquartered Sercomm, which manufactures IoT modules and devices, said his company was chipset agnostic. He added, however, that Huawei was its lead chipset partner in NB-IoT. "It's the most advanced we see in the market," said Lehnich.

Gianfranco De Feo, senior executive at Pietro Fiorentini Group, a smart meter supplier with operations in Italy, China and the US, among other countries, vouched that Huawei's NB-IoT network "delivered on expectations", and enabled battery life beyond ten years and much deeper coverage than GPRS-based solutions.

Last month, Pietro Fiorentini announced that -- with the help of Huawei -- it was the first in Europe to develop a NB-IoT-enabled smart gas meter meeting the European Union's Radio Emission Directive, the Measuring Instrument Directive and ATEX (Installations in Explosive atmosphere).

From a wider industry perspective, there was encouraging feedback from Paul Haigh, who heads up Vodafone's IoT operations serving multinational corporations in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Of enterprises adopting IoT technologies, the overwhelming majority were seeing a return on investment. "IoT is not a nice-to-have, it's a must-have," he said.

Haigh flagged the automotive sector as particularly important for Vodafone, and noted that the operator wanted to continue to explore areas that enhance Vodafone's IoT connectivity portfolio. "Looking into the future, backend software in IoT, enriched with AI, will probably become the dominant part of the IoT value chain" he said.

The Vodafone man, however, believes it will take between two and three years before IoT enjoys an exponential surge in growth.

Gang Dong was optimistic about IoT prospects in general and NB-IoT in particular. NB-IoT, he said, was just a "baby," but growing up fast. Gang expected more than 100 networks capable of running NB-IoT by end-2018, up from 39 the year previously. In terms of NB-IoT devices worldwide, he expected the number to jump from 10 million to 150 million over the same period.

"We established the technology last year, but this year it's really taking off," he said.

This article was sponsored by Huawei Technologies.

— Ken Wieland, Contributing Editor, Light Reading

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