In May 2019, Tata Communications launched its Internet of Things (IoT) Marketplace – a first-of-its-kind initiative in India to strengthen and accelerate the country’s growing IoT ecosystem. In an exclusive conversation with the Electronics Bazaar team, Alok Bardiya, head, the IoT business unit, Tata Communications, discusses the company’s journey in the IoT domain, what IoT entrepreneurs should focus on, as well as the need for a standard model that can be integrated with different IoT solutions, to guarantee interoperability, connectivity and security.
EB: Do you think IoT adoption is high only among tech enthusiasts?
The potential for IoT in India is huge and players across the value chain are transforming their business models. However, the level of adoption is rather low in comparison with the actual IoT market opportunities. There are some inherent challenges that need to be addressed for IoT to become as popular in India as it is in western markets.
Lack of awareness about the benefits of the technology, costs, privacy concerns and connectivity are some of the core challenges that need to be ironed out. India’s ‘Smart Cities’ mission is a good example, among many other use cases, that showcases the adoption of IoT technology in India.
The increasing number of tech-savvy consumers will surely drive IoT applications in the Indian market. We are dedicated towards building an IoT ecosystem in India that provides end-to-end IoT solutions to a diverse set of customers – enterprises, the government sector and startups.
EB: Does the company focus on B2B services, and on public sector and government projects?
We see ourselves as an end-to-end service provider. We are not talking about offering customers just one product. We talk to them and let them know that we can provide complete end-to-end solutions. We not only offer a network, but devices as well.
We manage the devices through the network, take up application management, provide information about the deployment of IoT, and help with the devices on the network while providing analytical support too. Hence, ours is a complete end-to-end offering.
Today, we are working with enterprises, the government of India and with startups as well. For instance, we are working closely with the Centre, helping to realise its Smart Cities mission, focusing on segments such as street lighting, as well as energy and managing utilities such as gas, water and electricity. On the other hand, both Indian as well as global startups are using our asset tracking devices, and there is work going on with temperature control devices and application development as well.
EB: In India, in which areas are IoT applications the most prevalent right now? How do you see things changing in the next couple of years?
When we speak of IoT, the response to consumer products has been pretty good. However, it is in the business sector that we have seen some of the most exciting IoT innovations, including the amalgamation of complex analytical algorithms and sensor data.
Further, as enterprises focus on streamlining business processes and increasing productivity, we see an increased demand for solutions that enhance asset management and improve energy management and consumption; and for devices that regularly monitor end-to-end employee health and safety. In fact, 98 per cent of organisations have already included enterprise IoT in their strategic roadmaps.
EB: Do explain Tata Communications’ role in the IoT landscape. What are your main offerings?
Tata Communications’ IoT business is at the core of the Indian B2B market and we play a pivotal role in the business transformation of various enterprises, across sectors. In the Indian market, we see a clear path to massive adoption in worker solutions, smart street lighting and asset tracking. We offer a range of products in these domains.
Our asset tracking solutions help enterprises know the status of their assets and where they are. For telecom companies, the assets deployed could be routers, and for power companies, these could be transformers.
For instance, we worked with Tata Power to launch its IoT based, asset tracking, automation solution in Mumbai. This state-of-art IoT solution supports various features, such as an asset trace log on a periodic basis, geo fence breach alerts, and the conversion of information into actionable insights in real-time, all of which help drive operational efficiencies.
We are now gearing up to provide customers with complete end-to-end solutions, beyond the network, to include devices, applications and platforms.
EB: Can you share some of your India-specific IoT success stories?
In the last few years, Tata Communications’ IoT business has transformed from an internally incubated idea to an independent business unit that works with varied stakeholders such as large enterprises, the government of India, startups and device manufacturers, among others.
We have already executed projects across segments such as customer services, lighting, and asset management. We are leading the way in street lighting, and have installed 300 smart streetlights for the Jamshedpur Utilities and Services Co. Ltd (JUSCO) enabling a reduction in their carbon footprint. We aim to increase this to 10,000 smart streetlights.
We have partnered with Mahanagar Gas Limited (MGL) and Indraprastha Gas Limited (IGL), two of India’s leading natural gas distribution companies, to roll out 5,000 smart gas meters in Mumbai and Rewari, Haryana, and we are seeing early success in both cases.
Another key project for us is our partnership with Tata Power, India’s largest integrated power company, for which we have launched an IoT based, smart consumer sub-station (CSS), which provides an excellent power experience to its customers. Our IoT solution provides the team with an overview of the CSS spread across different zones, enabling it to monitor its distribution sub-stations.
In May 2019, Tata Communications also launched the Internet of Things (IoT) Marketplace – a first-of-its-kind initiative in India to strengthen and accelerate the country’s growing IoT ecosystem. The IoT Marketplace brings together IoT practitioners and enterprise customers onto a single platform, so that IoT solutions can be tailored to drive innovation within businesses, while enabling vendors and partners on this platform to discover new market opportunities.
EB: You have been very active in the employee safety domain. Can you share some insights into the technology and its applications?
Increasing awareness about environmental health and safety has led many organisations to develop well-defined safety programmes globally. At Tata Communications, our primary focus is on the enterprise business, for which several pilot as well as large scale projects have already been executed across segments like safety (including for factory workers on shop floors), energy monitoring, asset protection, etc, that are now in the stage of scaling.
Our IoT enabled wearable devices for worker safety are a game changer in the emerging market landscape. These track employees and workers’ locations, detecting any abnormal health conditions and immediately send an alert if necessary.
Such solutions provide information about the location of workers with automated alerts in case of their proximity to hazardous or unauthorised areas, in real-time. Information about the fitness of workers with automated alerts is provided by tracking health anomalies. Such real-time information helps improve worker productivity. There is a quicker emergency response, reduced operational costs and overall employee satisfaction.
EB: What other areas have you been working on in IoT?
Our guiding strategy is to first focus on solutions that offer a demonstrable ROI for the customer. Our IoT experience and expertise enables us to make the highest value-add, particularly when these use cases also require the management of many end devices and sensors. As an example, we are working with new age companies in the ride-sharing market. They are using our innovative IoT solutions to improve operational efficiencies and, in turn, improve the customer experience too. As such, it is helping these firms expand and extend their operations across India.
Going forward, we will continue to explore partnerships with such progressive startups, to fully exploit IoT’s potential across different business models. I’d like to add that sometime last year, we also conducted a three-month long hackathon called ‘The Grand India IoT Innovation Challenge’, in partnership with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). This was for engineering students from over 26 colleges across India. The idea was to encourage young students to develop digital solutions, empower them to innovate in the area of IoT, and take a significant step towards bridging the skills gap by giving businesses direct access to Indian youth.
EB: What is your view on the standardisation of IoT protocols? How well have these been shaped? Is this making IoT adoption any easier?
We know that the IoT industry today has exploded, with vast amounts of funding being infused and the constant innovations that are taking place in this space. India, being a unique and diverse market, has its own set of challenges when it comes to IoT deployment.
One of the key problems that we are facing right now, as you correctly pointed out in your question, is standardisation. On the ground, there is momentum at the Proof of Concept (PoC) stage (to a certain extent, this continues through to even the commercial development stage) but what is lacking is the full-blown impact on the industry. The result is a fragmented market, choked by the various bottlenecks experienced across all businesses.
What the industry is looking for is a standard model that will seamlessly integrate different IoT solutions, and guarantee interoperability, connectivity, and security – all of which are lacking currently. There also needs to be a change in how the ecosystem handles this pertinent issue— this includes almost everybody, right from the government of India to enterprises and startups. Even though there have been several recommendations from industry bodies, they haven’t been implemented, thus weakening India’s position globally.
EB: What are your top three suggestions for IoT entrepreneurs?
IoT as a sector has really matured in the last few years and there is a huge interest from new entrants, who are using this technology to solve societal issues. There are IoT based startups that tackle issues like open defecation, water and energy conservation, etc. There is brilliant innovation happening on the ground.
However, there are some common issues every entrepreneur faces while building and establishing a startup—the first being scalability. If this is not taken seriously, there can be operational and financial implications on the business. New entrants, with two to three years’ experience, need to start from a small pilot project and understand the viability of their model. They also need to consider two key parameters. From an operations perspective, they first need to ask themselves if the project is working fine. And second, from a finance standpoint, they need to evaluate investment against ROI. Once they get the required validation, it is essential to have a plan for accomplishing the goal in the decided timeline.
The second concern is security, which is a very crucial conversation in the industry right now. Last year, McAfee’s threat report highlighted a 73 per cent increase in malware targeting IoT devices globally. This amounts to nearly 480 threats every minute. Even though organisations and leaders are aware of the increasing sophistication of the malicious attacks, there should be certain concrete changes in a business’ overall strategy. A change of attitude is required among the top brass as security continues to be an after-thought and is not built-in right from the onset. Entrepreneurs need to invest in the right cyber security team. It is becoming increasingly important to carefully choose vendors that have deep experience in protecting the IoT solution through its entire life cycle and executing end-to-end security capabilities.
The third and the most important concern is the current skills gap in the industry. Experts, who have a good command over machine learning, AI, IP networking and hardware interfacing, and can deal with the complexities of IoT technology at every stage, are urgently needed. Hence, IoT businesses should focus not only on their technological capabilities but also on a workforce that can seamlessly bring the technology to life.