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Vodafone launches platform that promises to play nicely with dusty legacy IoT kit

What untold treasures could these primitive technologies hold?

Carriers are eagerly eyeing industrial IoT as a way to fatten slender margins, and diversify from their traditional bread and butter of handset sales and subscriptions. The latest foray into this space comes from Vodafone, which plans to sell an end-to-end system to UK biz customers.

The product is based on technology developed by IoT.nxt, a South African startup partially owned by Vodafone. In 2019, the group's South African subsidiary, Vodacom, acquired a 51 per cent share in the firm, which has developed a range of sensors, gateways, and analytics tools.

In addition to providing the base IoT.nxt hardware and software, Vodafone will sell ongoing professional services, including a wholesale deployment and management package for those unable to administer the system in-house.

Enterprise IoT management systems are nothing new, with Microsoft, Amazon, and IBM all touting various cloud-based services. Separately, carriers of all stripes are champing at the bit to launch edge computing and private 5G services, which will inevitably incorporate an IoT element.

Where IoT.nxt differs is an emphasis on vintage kit, which isn't easily connected to incumbent analytics and management tools. In a press briefing, Vodafone CTO Scott Petty told us the product will encompass older or less-sophisticated IoT devices that might not have real internet connectivity.

"Counter to popular opinion, not all of these sensors have a TCP/IP stack," he said. "They're not IP native. They can't just be plugged in automatically to the internet. They could be a humidity sensor, they could be measuring power, they could be very old heritage technologies that have sensors with valuable information to us."

To connect these legacy devices to a modern Internet-of-Things platform, IoT.nxt's product uses a gateway called Raptor, which is in turn networked via a fixed-line or cellular connection, including the LTE-based Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) protocol.

"[Raptor] enables you to connect all of these heritage sensors – anything that has a two-wire connection," Petty said. "It has translation tools built-in that allow you to move data between different protocols and share that information. It also has the capability to do data filtering at the edge to ensure that only the information you want passes over the network."

One major emphasis in IoT.nxt is the removal of redundancies, according to Vodafone's CTO. "Prior to [this], we would need to deploy a gateway for each of those legacy protocols, and connect all of those to network or GSM cards. This became technically cumbersome and the cost was prohibitive to deploy across a large estate."

In a statement, IoT.nxt CEO Nico Steyn said: "IoT is perceived by many businesses to be complex and bespoke, but it doesn't have to be. We hope to change that perception with a platform which can be adapted to any business, and type of connection, and any use case."

Those perceptions may prove hard to shift, however. Market watchers at Canalys have observed that private equity funding for IoT slumped to $500m in the first three quarters of 2020, down from $1.3bn in the corresponding period last year. This, the analyst firm said, is due to difficulties in bringing IoT projects from the proof-of-concept stage to actual deployments.

"Return on investment is another [hurdle]," Canalys chief analyst Matthew Bell told The Register earlier this year. "The cost benefits of IoT projects are not always clear. We see successful IoT projects focus on clearly showing improvements in productivity, customer experience, compliance, and safety, as well as enabling new revenue streams." ®

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