Channel Live 2019: wireless tech in focus
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:

Sam Fenwick reports from Channel Live, where wireless technologies such as IoT and 5G were hot topics among ICT vendors and their channel partners

Before we begin in earnest, let’s quickly set the scene. Channel Live is an annual event for the information and communications technology (ICT) channel, developed by our sister magazine Comms Business and organised by MA Exhibitions (that like us is part of the Mark Allen Group). It was well attended and was held at the NEC Birmingham in mid-September.

Given that I’m so focused on wireless technologies, my visit was a slightly odd experience, in that everything felt familiar and strange at the same time. Fortunately, there was a considerable amount of crossover, on both the exhibition side and during the conference programme and, judging by panellists’ comments, the level of overlap between wireless comms and the rest of the ICT market is only going to increase. For example, many of those on the panel sessions discussing the Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G were doing so from the perspective of those who support resellers that primarily focus on fixed-line and unified communications technology and who are increasingly looking to wireless technologies to grow their business and unlock new opportunities.

On the arrogance of MNOs
Our tale begins with a panel on IoT, chaired by Elliot Mulley-Goodbarne, assistant editor of Technology Business Today (TBT). Lee Broxson, sales director at Jola (which has recently added a range of Three IoT and M2M SIMs to its portfolio), said while his company helps its partners to find IoT opportunities within their customer base, “it’s also about going after the bigger deals” – large customers of mobile network operators (MNOs) who may be poorly looked after. He added “there’s an element of arrogance in the community” in terms of the financial penalties levied by mobile operators at those who exceed their data allowances – “we try and counter that by giving people a certain level of control [and] proper alerts”. Jola’s largest deal (5,000-plus SIMs) came about because a customer received £100,000 of overages in one month from its MNO, so it was a ‘no-brainer’ to move over to Jola – “since then we’ve had deal after deal come from that same operator”.

Rob Keenan, business development manager at Atos, then discussed its current project with a police force to integrate their drones into its IoT platform. He noted that part of the police force’s interest is the lower cost of drone operations compared with deploying a helicopter, and added that “they’re very interested in how they can extend use of that technology into body-worn technology, so again a lot of the police are wearing the cameras but those cameras are not connected to anything” – and that this could possibly be enabled with 5G.

Robert Ferriday, business development manager at Alliot Technologies, emphasised the importance of making sure that IoT projects are scalable, commercially viable and capable of generating a good return on investment. He also highlighted the way in which resellers don’t want to have to search “through thousands of different products” before they “put it into practice, so we do that for them, we test them [and] make sure the manufacturer is viable”. He added: “Our speciality at present is LoRaWAN, but in two years’ time it could be NB-IoT, it just depends on which technology comes through – it’s still an emerging market.”

One thing that made my ears prick up was Jola’s Broxson’s comment that “body-worn cameras, CCTV, push-to-talk radios… these are emerging markets that our channel partners are taking advantage of. Push-to-talk is a huge one – currently [it’s] 90 per cent standard radio [frequencies], 10 per cent cellular – that is going to shift and [it’s] a massive market.”

No time like the present
Turning to a panel on 5G (again hosted by TBT’s Mulley-Goodbarne), Andrew Dickinson, managing director of Jola, said his company is very interested in fixed cellular connectivity for businesses. “We have about 600 resellers and every month 10 or 15 per cent [of them] that have been traditionally [focused on selling] BroadSoft, traditional calls and lines are moving into mobile data, and one of the really big opportunities of [fixed mobile] is back-up.” He highlighted how this has been made possible by the introduction of 4G, the good speeds it delivers and how these are set to increase with 5G. He added that Jola is often asked by people: ‘How do I get into 5G?’

“The answer is to start getting into 4G now; the great benefit for resellers is they don’t have infrastructure, they’re not tied to a particular network, and if they’re working with somebody who is able to integrate with these networks then they can take these products on very quickly. The great thing about mobile data is that the support overhead is almost zero, so you can build huge volumes of customers on 4G data without having to hire provisioning people.” That said, he also highlighted the need to learn the ins and outs of the mobile industry and the “extraordinarily complex” nature of mobile data – however, this “is great if you can make that simple to your end-user. It isn’t that hard to compete with the networks directly if you know what you’re doing.”

He added that a typical ICT reseller may have at least one opportunity for thousands of mobile SIMs they are not aware of and companies like Jola can help them identify such opportunities.

Ros Singleton, managing director of UK Broadband, a wholly owned subsidiary of Three, said those customers using Three’s new 5G fixed wireless access service “are getting largely between 200-300Mbps”, with one happy customer getting 530Mbps download speeds, though at the time she spoke the service had only been deployed for two and a half weeks, “so we are not that populated yet, but my 4G customers – this is all central London – on average get about 30Mbps down anyway”.

However, Arslan Usman, systems architect at Pangea (who also gave a good summary of the technical aspects of 5G), highlighted the fact that at the moment, such roll-outs are mainly using sub-6GHz spectrum (“they’re more like 4G advanced”), rather than the combination of millimetre-wave frequencies and dense small cells that will deliver far higher data transfer rates.

One network to rule them all
One of the speakers graced with their own slot was Gavin Jones, managing director of mobile operator, media and broadcast and channel division at BT Wholesale, who discussed the future of BT’s network. He emphasised the scale of the company’s annual investment – some £2bn – the way in which 5G (unlike 4G) requires a fundamental redesign, and BT’s intention of moving from three separate networks (mobile, Wi-Fi and fixed-line broadband) to a single “smart network”. He added that part of the motivation for doing the latter is the current set-up’s structural inefficiency and the need to be able to offer customers low latency. This ties into the rationalisation of BT’s building stock that will take place with the shutdown of its copper services in 2025 and the use of mobile edge computing and virtualisation techniques – in future, capacity will be managed centrally, rather than being site-specific.

Jones also said that BT’s network currently “operates to the tune of about 3-4Tbps, it’s scaled for 6Tbps, we know it’s going to double in 18 months’ time. We’re running at 100Gbps in the core [and] we’re actually trialling 200Gbps and 400Gbps.” Jones added that simply upgrading the backhaul (from 1Gbps to 10Gbps) to the cellular masts to support the amount of traffic that will take place once 5G is fully rolled out is a three- to four-year programme in its own right.

I hope that this has given you a feel for Channel Live and some of the discussions that took place. Given the ICT’s focus on unified communications and its increasing awareness of opportunities in the wireless domain, I suspect that we can expect plenty of new entrants in the years to come, while there may be quite a few opportunities (and potential partners) in the wider ICT world that a canny two-way radio dealer could benefit from.

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