The big interview: the cash must flow
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:

Chris Rivera, Syniverse’s CTO, talks to Sam Fenwick about mobile roaming and billing in the age of 5G and IoT

Globalisation is a bit like Marmite – some love it, others hate it. While both Brexit and the election of President Trump can both be seen as a reaction against it, large (and growing) parts of the business world are focused on grappling with the complexity of modern supply chains and the way that many operations, business people and increasingly connected objects crisscross international boundaries. Meanwhile, others are concentrating on providing the technology that helps this complex and intricate dance happen in a smooth and predictable way.

One company that firmly slots into the latter category is Syniverse, which through its mobile roaming services underpins a great deal of the experience we have come to expect when we get off a plane, turn on our phones, get a text message from our local mobile network operator (MNO), and – possibly after buying a data package – proceed to use them as normal. Chris Rivera, Syniverse’s CTO, says this includes handling “all the billing, reconciliation and records” that is needed to work out the revenue sharing between the user’s MNO and the network they are roaming on. While such a task may not be glamorous, it is an important one – as anyone who has experienced a full-blown dispute over the splitting of a restaurant bill can attest to.

Blockchain’s potential

Rivera adds that Syniverse is looking to evolve the underlying technology behind mobile roaming – one of the ways it is doing this is by recently running a pilot with a couple of international MNOs that investigated the use of blockchain technology. There are a number of reasons why Rivera thinks blockchain will be the next stage of mobile roaming’s evolution. The first is blockchain’s high level of security and flexibility. Then, combined with the way that the records of each transaction are immutable, is its ability to offer smart, transparent contracts that all parties can see and adhere to.

He says: “Since roaming has evolved over 30 years, it’s a little bit more complex than it should be. Now that new industries like IoT, retail and logistics are needing more connectivity, blockchain will play a huge role in simplifying how payment records and transactions are exchanged and accounted for between the carriers providing the connectivity, and the larger ecosystem.”

Right now, the billing systems for connectivity take place among mobile carriers, but blockchain will open up multi-party transactions and clearing between not only carriers but also enterprises and connectivity providers of all types.

I ask Rivera if Syniverse is looking to use blockchain to handle payments for spectrum-renting agreements such as Licensed Shared Access (LSA), which has been discussed as a means of temporarily providing public safety agencies with the spectrum they require for tactical networks. “Potentially – you could do that probably a number of different ways,” he replies. He adds that smart contracts could be used to enable MNOs to be automatically fined if they fail to meet SLAs or deliver the required level of quality of service.

Staying on the theme of spectrum sharing, Rivera says: “We’re very excited about [CBRS – the Citizens Broadband Radio Service in the US] because it is opening up additional spectrum capability that we can offer to our enterprise customers, and as an extension of our Secure Global Access [network], we partnered with Ruckus [Networks] and Federated Wireless to provide a one-stop shop” – to provide enterprises with private LTE networks, running on CBRS spectrum in the 3.5GHz band. Ruckus is providing the small cells, Federated Wireless the spectrum controller and Syniverse the Evolved Packet Core. Syniverse is also managing the networks through its Innovation Lab, while providing cyber security via Secure Global Access.

The company is also involved in carrier Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi roaming. It recently announced a collaboration with Mobolize, leveraging the latter’s technology to provide data optimisation, secure Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi cellular bonding. Wi-Fi cellular bonding works to eliminate the dead zone that is normally encountered when moving from Wi-Fi coverage to an LTE network.

Rivera says the costs associated with 5G network densification are likely to lead to greater RAN sharing, together with more interest in neutral hosts, and that in the case of IoT, individual services may involve a variety of radio technologies and networks. In both cases, there is an increased need for clearing and settlement services to make sure that everyone in the connectivity stack gets their fair share.

Back in February, Syniverse launched a 5G signalling service proof of concept that supports cross-network connectivity for IoT, artificial intelligence and virtual reality applications, and is designed to simplify multi-network 5G connectivity, with routing co-ordinated through a central hub rather than multiple individual connections. A complete market-ready version is being planned for release later this year.

On the same day, it also announced Syniverse Open Connectivity Complete, which is intended to offer MNOs a “plug and play” mobile roaming hub with multilateral roaming agreements for data, messaging and voice services.

Rivera says Syniverse and its customers see it as a neutral host – “our enterprise customers want to leverage our network to get access to the MNOs; [it gives them] one throat to choke… we give enterprises a marketplace [through] which they can offer services anywhere in the planet without having to go out and establish relationships with all the different [MNOs], as we already have those relationships”. He adds that “we’re very comfortable with revenue-sharing models, so we build out services and we share revenue with MNOs and the enterprises as part of our business model”.

Package tracking’s premium

Rivera adds: “The industry has finally found ways to start to monetarise some of the initial [IoT] use-cases and broadening them out to address more market opportunities. Connected cars [are] one of the first IoT applications that people talk about. [They] haven’t made a bunch of money for the industry but people are willing to pay a premium to ensure that high-value packages are tracked a lot more accurately and [for] supply chain components [to be] tracked extremely accurately.

Those models have grown up over the last three or four years, [they’ve] started to mature and people are getting more comfortable going after more IoT-based use-cases relating to moving around and tracking items and finding a way to add value to those items – it’s not necessarily a direct monetarisation model where it’s like ‘great, you track that item from here to there, can I pay you some money for it?’ – it could be related to insurance, [for example. These applications] are starting to be more prevalent.

“We have a large industrial partner we’re working closely with to offer drone control analytics and services capabilities to enhance the operations of industries like oil, gas and logistics. This partner needs one enabler company to allow them to access and run their control and analytics systems for drone connectivity anywhere on the planet.”

Speaking generally about 5G’s potential, Rivera says: “There are things to be said about new low-latency type of applications, like drones. If somebody said three years ago that drones were going to be one of the driving use-cases of 5G, people would probably scratch their heads. But now, industries are thinking about using drones to make their businesses more agile and lower-cost. For example, big logistics carriers have to do inspection on their massive fleet of aircraft, which today is all done with people crawling all over that aircraft and taking each aircraft into a hanger.

Now the industry is looking to use drones to deploy infra-red and video scanning to cover their fleets in a few minutes or a few hours, opposed to the weeks it would take going through the linear manual process. This presents real cost savings that’ll drive investment for new innovations going forward. Is 5G going to be required? 5G will be an enabler of this to support mass connectivity and it will absolutely help in those cases.”

Here at Land Mobile we tend to keep our coverage of the mobile world restricted to the most visible part of the iceberg-like ecosystem – the nuts and bolts that make up networks and the services that run over them. However, as we have seen, sometimes it is worth diving below the surface. Given that many IoT start-ups may well be wondering how to deliver their services across borders, it is encouraging to see that this issue may be not as intractable as one might first assume.

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