The Mobile World Congress is the annual gathering of the mobile phone industry each year in Barcelona. Some commentators (The Register and BBC Technology) have slammed the event as boring. For those who went to Barcelona with the intention to discover new smartphones, then yes, innovation is a little thin on the ground as most smartphones look similar and mostly Android based.
But the mobile world is much more than smart phones. The Internet of Things (IOT) is a concept where mobile connectivity connects devices and services to the internet. MWC2018 was bursting with plenty of innovation this year.
IOT is an evolving market and we will see plenty of innovation over the next few years which will be very useful to the aid sector. In this article we will explore a handful of solutions which may be useful to NGOs.
Mobile phone technology have evolved massively over the years. Whilst historically set up for voice communications, the networks are getting more geared towards providing increasingly faster data services. Future 5G technology will be able to exceed 100Mb/s. The current 3G and 4G technologies are delivering good services in many countries. In some developing countries, traditional wired infrastructure does not exists and we are seeing a leapfrog affect where nations ignore building traditional copper infrastructure in favour of building reliable mobile networks.
In the years ahead, it’s likely that many NGO offices will be using major mobile network operators for office internet connectivity. You might think this approach might be far in the future when 5G arrives. The reality is that good quality mobile internet is “here and now” as long as the right technology is used to access the networks. New multi-channel routers means that we can get more out of existing 3G and 4G networks simply by using multiple SIM cards simultaneously.
e-sim technology: When first introduced, the SIM card was the size of a credit card. The SIM was reduced to the mini format and then followed by micro sim and finally the nano sim. The electronic SIM (e-sim) is a new approach where a virtual SIM card is delivered to device electronically. This approach will make life easier for people who travel as they might in the future have a wallet of e-sims stored on their smartphones so that they can access the best rates and use local numbers in the countries where they are visiting.
E-sims have yet to find their way onto smartphones, but they have arrived already in some technologies such as the Telna GSM router. The router is fitted with four e-sim channels which means that 3G or 4G performance is quadrupled over single SIM technologies. The device is cloud managed which makes provisioning of services easy.
The four e-sims are loaded by Telna, but for organisations which have better rates with other providers who use traditional plastic SIM cards, they still can be used as the SIM cards can be sent to Telna where they are then applied to the device in e-format.
The Telna system could be a suitable option to many NGO field sites as it gives organisations the flexible technology needed to switch providers easily in a rapidly changing market. Reliability can also be improved as different networks can be applied to the four available channels.
This technology is going to be applied to Save the Children emergency response pre-positioned equipment. Traditionally satellite technology such as BGAN and VSAT has been used in emergency settings, but as we learnt in some parts of the Caribbean in 2017, GSM networks have improved their resilience and come back online quickly. So how much does this technology cost? The router is $999 and data costs $25 per GB. When compared to some packages in developed countries, this might appear pricy, by when compared to a 5Mb/sec VSAT connection which costs $5,000 per month (maximum throughput of 25GB), the 3G router would only cost $625 to deliver the same volume of data.
One other innovation from Telna is the sticky sim – this is a sticker which goes onto a standard SIM card turning the existing SIM card into a dual SIM.
AT&T: As a global brand, AT&T has some IOT products in the market. AT&T recently signed global agreement with Caterpillar (Makers of engines, generators and construction equipment) to use GSM networks to monitor the performance of assets. For NGOs, this IOT offering could be a great way to monitor the health and fuel performance of generators.
AT&T is also working on a range of technologies to support healthcare. Telemedicine technology is available to carry out basic checks such as heart rate / blood pressure and even to analyse saliva for certain indicators. This information can allow qualified doctors in remote locations to diagnose conditions and prescribe medicines.
The transport of Vaccines is also a challenge in hot countries, the tech flask (in the picture) has the ability to monitor location and temperature of its contents whilst in transit. This gives the confidence to medics that the vaccine is safe and have arrived in good condition.
Eutelsat: WMC2018 is all about terrestrial solutions…, right? Well amongst the hundreds of 3G tech companies I was surprised to see Eutelsat pushing its latest spin off company Konnect. Over the past two years or more, Eutelsat has been very vocal about its future VSAT offering (Ka Band). The new satellite internet technology is targeted at the domestic market and aims to go head to dead with other internet providers, especially in rural settings.
With the roll out of fibre across Africa, Satellite based internet could be regarded as a shrinking market. But when you look at the number of physical cables connecting Africa to the rest of the world, it is clear that there is a finite amount of capacity which may be problematic to the various companies emerging to supply internet based services. More sea cables will improve the situation, but in the meantime, the Eutesat/Konnect offer might add some value, especially to rural communities.
Konnect services are not available commercially yet. Trials are planned in Kenya and some other countries in the next few months. At WMC2018, Konnect was showing off a rugged unit which incorporates VSAT, Wi-Fi and a content server. This technology would be a great system to use in a rural school as some content can be loaded onto the box for education (and not rely on live internet). This system is also designed to manage a power feed from a solar energy system.
Conclusion: Whilst the World Mobile Congress lacked breakthroughs in new smartphones (Apple and Google tend to launch products at times of their own choosing), there was a great deal of innovation on display which leavers the benefits of a connected world via GSM. Shengen is regarded as the Silicon Valley of China. Lots of innovators from Shengen were at MWC2018 showcasing a lot of technology. IOT is going to be the new buzzword over the next couple of years. The MWC forum is an area for NGOs should watch as this is where we will be able to identify excellent tools to help our humanitarian community delver technology enabled programmes.