If you attended the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this year, you might have thought that the Internet of Things was mainly about bikes and labradors, as they were the mainstay of applications which were depicted on most IoT stands. The reason for that was a marketing push for Narrow Band IoT (NB-IOT) orchestrated by the GSM Association, who had picked up on two applications from early trials and was promoting them at every opportunity.
There’s probably a good market for tracking labradors, as in my experience they’re not the smartest breed in the canine world, but they’re definitely a lot smarter than anyone who believed the IoT message that the network operators were pushing out in Barcelona. According to companies like Vodafone, commercial trials were only four months away, with commercial services next year. But you need more than marketing to make something happen. So here’s my view of the real progress of NB-IOT.
The mobile industry loves hype. Now that 4G phones have reached the market, suppliers are keen to promote the next dollop of “jam tomorrow” by offering the world 5G – something that’s still rather nebulous, but as always in this industry, allegedly better than what we have today. Most users have still to experience 4G, but that’s par for the course. The industry loves something new, preferably with a bigger number. It begs the question of whether we need it, and even what it is? To try and answer these questions it’s instructive to look back at the history of mobile to see just what the “G”s mean.
Last night the UK cellular industry gathered in London’s Science Museum to mark twenty-five years of mobile networks in the UK. It was an event that drew together many of the people who have been responsible for the extraordinary explosion of the mobile industry, talking about the history of how it happened, and looking into their crystal balls to try and predict the direction of the next twenty-five years.
It has been an extraordinary journey. I missed the first five years, but have been involved for the last twenty, predominantly trying to encourage data applications and moving services past the phone to internet connected devices. That’s not been the most successful area of the industry, although I believe its time is about to come. What last night proved was how radically the growth of the mobile industry has changed our lives.
The phrase of “two nations divided by a common language” to describe the differences between America and the UK is generally ascribed to Bernard Shaw. Looking at a recent presentation on mHealth, it occurred to me that a very similar comment could be coined for the way we use our mobile phones.
The thought that prompted this came from a presentation by Andre Blackman on mHealth. In it he asked his North Carolina audience the question of “How many mobile phones are equipped with SMS (text) function?” The answer, which I suspect surprised a number of his audience, was “WOW – 95%”. It struck me that had I been asking a similar question in Europe, I’d have phrased it differently, probably as “When was the last phone sold which didn’t have SMS?” And I’d have been surprised to get many audience members suggesting a date any later than 2002 – ten years after the first SMS was sent.
It highlights something which I’ve been aware of for the last ten years – different countries and cultures are developing their mobile usage in different ways. Multi-mode and multi-standard phones now mean that most of us around the world have the same basic technology in our hands. Yet the way we use that and the way that our network operators promote it continues to diverge.
At last week’s G20 summit, the GSM Association assembled 24 of their operators to provide a petition requesting access to more spectrum. The reason was to allow them to make mobile broadband a key part of their country’s broadband plans. Whether or not they get their wish is still to be seen, but it sends a powerful message that they, as well as fixed line operators, can be part of the broadband future.
That’s important for them, as it places them far more firmly on their individual country’s roadmap towards a broadband future. In turn, that’s important to handset developers, who will see it as justification to include broadband related technologies and features. And it’s important to manufacturers of connected consumer devices that will extend the broadband reach beyond the handset. It gives further emphasis to Bluetooth’s claim to be the mainstream low power technology for low power healthcare devices. The reason is simple – an expansion of handsets supporting mobile broadband will mean a bigger critical mass of Bluetooth gateways. That’s a reality the Continua Health Alliance and health device designers needs to factor into their plans.
The Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, meeting place of all that is new and shiny in the mobile business, gave unexpected attention to the subject of mobile healthcare. As well as announcements by the GSMA Development Fund and UN Foundation on the progress that is happening in the developing world, the GSM Association also hosted a panel session on mHealth, which I was fortunate enough to moderate.
Alongside me were David Neale of Telus and Brian O’Connor of the European Connected Health Campus. Both are pioneers in mobile health and excellent advocates for the subject. The biggest question we all had, which we posed to the networks and service providers is “why aren’t you doing it?” The examples shown by the GSMA’s “Doctor in your Pocket” report show that mobile phones can play a persuasive part in healthcare. Yet network operators in the West constantly reject health applications in favour of content. It doesn’t need to be like that.