As carriers increasingly look to handle more IoT connectivity for customers, they’ll need to rethink their approach to signaling control, as Doug Ranelli of NetNumber tells Internet of Business.
The signaling control functions used behind the scenes by telecoms service providers are not something that most smartphone users will have ever considered – but they are vital to our day-to-day experience of making voice calls, sending messages and using apps.
At Lowell, Massachusetts-based NetNumber, a company that provides signaling control functions to many carriers, including AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, BT, Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom, founder and chief strategy officer Doug Ranalli has a nifty way of explaining the technology’s role.
As users, he says, we’re all familiar with the data and voice network. We turn on our phones, the phone connects to the network, and in the upper left corner of the screen, we see signal bars and a network designate, such as 4G. Says Ranalli: “Everyone knows what that means. If they’ve lots of bars and are on 4G, they can be pretty sure of a great service.”
But behind the scenes, he continues, there’s a whole other network that controls a user’s access to voice and data services, keeps track of their activity, enables them to roam between networks and ensures they are billed correctly. It’s that separate network that is provided by signaling control.
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Less cost, less complexity
Within signaling control, there are some 20 discrete, standardized functions – and most carriers have tended in the past to buy separate software on a piecemeal basis in order to support each function.
This, according to Ranalli, is where NetNumber stands out: its Titan product supports all 20 functions in a single technology deployment. He claims that makes it a less costly proposition for carriers and a less complex one to deploy and support, and that this is going to be increasingly important as carriers increasingly provide customers with the connectivity they need to run sensors, devices and machines in the IoT.
“A big problem that carriers face with IoT is that they’re dealing with a large number of endpoints that each earn them very little money. So they’ve got to figure out how to dramatically squeeze the cost per device of signaling control,” says Ranalli.
Right now, carriers’ signaling control networks are based on human subscribers paying a carrier, on average, $ 40 per month for services. Now, that business model looks set to be overturned by the need to support signaling control for many more non-human IoT devices, paying $ 1 per month, possibly less.
There’s another problem on the horizon, too: because there are relatively few IoT sensors and meters connecting to carrier networks right now, most carriers are supporting early deployments using excess capacity on their existing signaling networks. “But as the IoT grows, and there’ll suddenly be ten times more IoT devices than there are human subscribers, then you’re going to see the IoT overwhelm the existing signaling network – and that’s where NetNumber comes in.”
Ranalli claims, that because NetNumber’s Titan consolidates signaling control functions in a single product, it’s less costly to deploy and less complex to support than rival products. In turn, that means that carriers may start to consider deploying new signaling networks specifically for IoT devices, running alongside those they already run for human subscribers.
In part, they’ll be motivated to do so as the number of IoT devices prove too much for existing signaling networks, as discussed. At the same time, they’ll be starting to understand better the very different demands that these devices place on signaling control technology, compared to phones.
Most smartphones, after all, tend to be low users of signaling control and big users of data services. In other words, once they’re switched on and connected, and unless they roam between different networks frequently, they’re simply not making as many demands of the signaling network as they do of the data network.
By contrast, IoT devices are low users of data and big users of signaling control, as Ranalli points out. “IoT devices will be checking in with the network all the time, sending small status updates constantly – and all those status updates tend to be processed over the signaling control network.”
Right now, the prospect of implementing a new signaling network for IoT is not a prospect many carriers have much time or inclination to consider, he concedes, but awareness is growing that excess capacity on existing networks can’t take the strain forever. By next year, some carriers will start to give the matter some serious thought, he reckons, and by 2020, many others will be keen to jump on board.
“In the meantime, that’s where we at NetNumber are setting our direction. We’re making sure we have all the technology ready for carriers as soon as they decide to that route,” he concludes.
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