As regular readers will know, Twilio essentially invented the communications platform as a service (CPaaS) industry and pioneered a new category of communications service provider, one that enables developers to create an amazing array of services that depend on network services. The company’s initial success was powered by a couple of core capabilities, masked phone numbers and SMS integration, capitalized on by companies like Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, TaskRabbit, Handy, DoorDash, Lululemon… and the list goes on.
The real revolution Twilio brought about was the idea of a communications service provider that doesn’t deliver SIP trunks or MPLS but rather APIs that link applications to a flexible set of communication resources. In line with BCStrategies
’ consistent theme of “communications integrated to optimize business processes,” Twilio makes communications another service an application can call up via an API. My associate and fellow No Jitter blogger Marty Parker
has gone to great lengths to show how basic communications services are being integrated into a wide variety of business applications.
IoT Isn’t Easy
Twilio aims to broaden its focus with support for IoT applications. Bolstering that initiative, Twilio made two significant announcements at its Signal
conference this past October. The first was development of a new SIM card capability called Super SIM
, and the second, a developer program for IoT applications in partnership with T-Mobile, allowing use of the carrier’s new Narrowband IoT
(NB-IoT) network service.
As Andrew Jordan, Twilio senior product manager for IoT, noted in his Signal presentation on the developer program, “IoT is hard.” The majority of consumer-focused IoT applications we’ve seen to date rely either on smartphones or special modules installed in cars. Probably the most successful version of the former is Waze and of the latter GM’s OnStar.
Twilio is looking toward more far-reaching IoT applications like smart cities (e.g., smart traffic control, smart parking, and crowd/traffic monitoring), environmental monitoring, and tracking items that lack a reliable power source (e.g., trash bins and scooter rentals). Each of these applications will require unique hardware that exhibits low-cost, low-power draw, and with differing transmission requirements that call for connectivity via a variety of network services.
Don’t We Need 5G for IoT?
The promised arrival of 5G has confused the discussion of IoT network services. For IoT, 5G promises very-low-latency services (e.g., one millisecond), greater device densities (e.g., one million devices per square kilometer), along with massive available bandwidth (e.g., 100 M downstream x 10 Mbps upstream). However, 5G NR (New Radio) services don’t exist anywhere in the world today, and those service attributes will only be important to certain classes of IoT applications. Thousands of other IoT applications call for capacities measured in hundreds of bits per second and where latencies of several seconds can be more than adequate -- as long as the thing’s battery can last for 10 years.
In recognition of that, mobile carriers have introduced any number of 3GPP-defined and third-party network technologies specifically designed for IoT (see related post, “IoT Starts with ‘Network’
”). Most IoT applications today work over LTE’s basic LTE-Cat 0 data service, essentially the same network service your smartphone uses. Virtually all carriers are deploying, or at least planning, a lower-bandwidth (~200 Kbps) IoT service called LTE Cat M1. The popularity of Cat M1 is driven primarily by the fact that it’s relatively cheap and efficient to deploy.
NB-IoT is the other leading contender in the battle for IoT-specific network services. NB-IoT offers similar data rates to Cat M1 but with the promise of lower cost and far greater power efficiency. As luck would have it, those benefits come at the cost of greater technology disruption in the carrier’s network.
Thus far, only T-Mobile has launched nationwide NB-IoT
, though the others are considering it. As NB-IoT channels require only 200 KHz of radio bandwidth, T-Mobile is deploying it in guard bands, which are slots of frequency at the boundaries of larger channels normally left vacant to limit interference. The package Twilio is offering in conjunction with T-Mobile could deliver NB-IoT connectivity for as little as $4 per device per year.
In the meantime, one drawback of NB-IoT is that it isn’t truly mobile in that it can’t yet hand off active connections. When a device that’s been moved around is reactivated, it will find the network and reauthenticate.
One-Stop Shop for Mobile Connectivity
In a recent conversation, Evan Cummack
, head of Twilio’s IoT Business Unit, identified other challenges developers will face in making this vision of IoT a reality. We all know that data networks are inherently problematic, and radios only make that more so. Beyond that, the range of IoT network services will continue to grow, and as this is a worldwide market, businesses will need a network solution that reaches beyond the coverage footprint of the four major U.S. carriers. That’s where the Super SIM
While network services continue to evolve, the one common element they’ll employ is a SIM card to identify and authenticate the user or device. Starting this spring, Twilio will offer a Super SIM card that will allow IoT devices to direct traffic over multiple carrier networks (i.e., Multi-IMSI capability), along with the ability for over the air (OTA) reconfiguration. That latter capability is very important for IoT devices that might be located in hard-to-reach places and are essentially untouched for years at a time.
As with the current T-Mobile relationship in the U.S., Twilio is looking to partner with mobile operators worldwide and has thus far recruited Telefonica
(Europe, Latin, and South America), Three Group
(Europe, Asia-Pac), and Singtel
(Singapore, Asia-Pac). The vision is that developers could deploy IoT devices with Super SIMs around the world and each would automatically jump onto a network from a carrier partner wherever its installation. As Twilio adds new carrier partners, it uses the OTA capability for Super SIMs updates.
Twilio’s plan is to become the one-stop shop for global wireless IoT connectivity, Cummack told me. As with its current offerings, Twilio is looking to shield the developers from the technical, operational, billing, and carrier negotiations involved in deploying a global IoT application. All the developer should have to worry about is using the API to connect to Twilio, and the connectivity “happens” regardless of where the device is in the world or how it’s connected.
Adding Value to a Utility
Twilio’s value prop is based on transforming what are essentially basic utility voice/video/mobile text services into value-adding capabilities that enable a wide variety of new services. The utility services continue to be low-margin, price-sensitive headaches that people simply expect to work all the time. The value comes from the ability to outsource the vast majority of the headaches that come with providing such a utility -- headaches with which our readers are all too familiar.
Twilio’s biggest advantage could be its positioning with the developer community. Most of its initial IoT users are existing customers. The market for non-smartphone IoT is in an early stage of development and its ultimate prospects are still speculative. However, Twilio has put a stake in the ground with a promise to take on one gnarly part of the problem.
BCStrategies is an industry resource for enterprises, vendors, system integrators, and anyone interested in the growing business communications arena. A supplier of objective information on business communications, BCStrategies is supported by an alliance of leading communication industry advisors, analysts, and consultants who have worked in the various segments of the dynamic business communications market.