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6 November 2019

Telcos must build 5G networks for IoT, not just smartphones, says Sprint

Operators will not achieve a full return on their 5G investment if they keep designing their networks the same old way, with smartphones in mind.

This was the warning from Ivo Rook, Sprint’s SVP of IoT business, speaking at the Total Telecom conference in London last week. He argued that, while operators are keen to point out that 5G networks are designed to support a wide variety of use cases and revenue streams, they are rarely optimizing them for these new opportunities.

“If we think the world is going to change and networks are going to be at the center of that, we should be thinking about how we are building networks, but also why we are building networks,” he said. “If the smartphone is the use case of the mobile network today, then what is the use case of tomorrow?”

Sprint has put money where its mouth is. Rather than looking to support IoT applications on its existing network, it has spent the past three years building out an IoT-specific and fully virtualized network with its own 5G-ready core, running on bare metal servers to boost efficiency and reduce cost. Most importantly, the connectivity is optimized for IoT requirements such as low latency and large device numbers, while the 5G core, when it comes, will enable the network to adapt on-demand to the varying demands of different use cases, evolving eventually to dynamic network slicing.

This highly distributed network, called Curiosity IoT, is now implemented on open cloud infrastructure in 150 points of presence, combined with edge computing capabilities in many locations. The platform will also support third party edge applications, and Sprint will allow third parties to run applications over a combination of their own and Sprint locations. The latest move is to add LTE-based NB-IoT support (see separate item).

“You can’t build a network and bring services to it. You have to see where demand is and take the network to that, Parvin Mahajan, head of customer operations for Sprint’s IoT business, said recently.

It remains to be seen how this network will evolve within the broader portfolio should Sprint’s acquisition by T-Mobile USA finally be green-lighted. But for now, Curiosity IoT provides a relatively rare example of an MNO trying to align network investment and optimization with new revenue opportunities, rather than clinging to the old approach of building one generic pipe for all applications.

In Sprint’s design, traffic is separated at the radio, before being routed to different cores – one dedicated to smartphone traffic requirements, and one to the Curiosity IoT services and devices.

As Sprint points out, the capex required to build an IoT network is generally lower than to support the massive capacity requirements of a smartphone model – and the mobile IoT, though a small segment now, is likely to have far higher growth potential, in the 2020s, than smartphone services, which are delivering only about 2% annual revenue growth at the current time (and none for operators in some pressurized markets).

As well as adding NB-IoT – a low power WAN connectivity option which has been overlayed on some of Sprint’s 4G network – the operator has also introduced a private IoT network option to Curiosity, following the intensifying trend for enterprises to seek cellular connectivity that is optimized and managed to their own requirements. With spectrum choices like the USA’s CBRS band putting airwaves within reach of non-MNOs, some operators are hastening to support private network services themselves.

Sprint’s private network offering allows customers to manage IoT applications with critical requirements, such as low latency or local break-out, themselves in a self-contained network. This is based on a virtualized, pre-integrated enterprise core network that is quick to deploy and can work with any access technology including WiFi.

The US MNO has also announced a ‘Curiosity University’ for its employees, to encourage a new generation of IoT skills, and it plans to set up a Sprint 5G Incubator at Arizona State University’s Novus Innovation Corridor, as part of a new, broad-based partnership with the academic institution to develop and test IoT use cases for 5G.