Q&A: Alexandre Pelletier, head of innovation, Tata
Big Interview

Q&A: Alexandre Pelletier, head of innovation, Tata

Alexandre Pelletier, head of innovation at Tata Communications, discusses the operator’s internet of things initiatives in India.

Last November, Tata announced that it had conducted trials of low power wide area network (LPWAN) based on long range (LoRa) technology for IoT applications across Mumbai and Delhi. How did the project come about?

This project came out of our innovation contest Shape the Future at Tata a few years ago. The team designed it with the aim to provide affordable IoT which utilises separate networks that go deeper into the ground to connect industrial objects while leveraging more power. Our approach going into this was that we are not going to tell customers what to do; as the customer, you tell us what you want. We’re taking a B2B2C approach by going to the end user and saying: “We have this technology. What would you like to do with it?” We ask these questions because protocols and problems differ among countries, whether in the UK, US and India. We think about problems that people are facing every day and how technology can help empower them. The best way to think about a solution is to ask them so they can tell us what we need to build.

What benefits of the LoRa technology are you seeing?

As an operator, if the way you run IoT is too expensive, take-up will be slow. That’s where LoRa comes in. It is 10 times more cost efficient to run a LoRa network than a GSM network. LoRa makes complete sense because it enables communications in deep water and up to 50 metres underground. If you want to track assets that are underground, the only way is through LoRa band. With GSM, you won’t get coverage in water pipes under the pavement – LoRa allows you to do that.

GSM is very power consuming. Its chipsets require a lot of power to run. LoRa enables us to run a tracking device that sends data every hour and is expected to run for 10 years. From an operations and maintenance perspective, it is much more effective for any industrial application. It’s about finding use cases – what we can make of the data and how it can enable an entire ecosystem. We have to be open and flexible. Everything we build has to be completely open so our customers can play with the platform as they see fit. We want people to imagine, create and connect objects, devices and applications. We aim to deploy India’s first LoRa network across the country between September and October this year, initially rolling out in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore. We target to cover 400 million people across tier one, two, three and four cities in the first phase.

How has the Indian government supported the initiative?

We have been entrusted to go ahead and execute the project. That’s the best support we can get from a government. The officials are interested in the applications that we’re deploying and we’re keeping them updated with our progress. There’s a very big ambition in the country to enable IoT through smart cities with its prime minister Narendra Modi announcing his plan to roll out 100 smart cities within 10 years. Tata is also part of a consortium to build India’s first smart city in Gujarat International Finance Tec-City (GIFT) in which we are delivering capacity.

Is Tata planning to deploy the network outside of India?

We believe that applications suited to India can be rolled out to other developing markets in south-east Asia. The applications that we deploy in India can be replicated.

While Tata is an expert in working with developing markets, we have to be humble. Analysts claim that over a billion objects will be connected, generating an incremental turnover exceeding $300 billion in 2020. But who gets the value? That remains to be answered. What’s given is these objects will be connected – that much we know. To execute that, we will need to find new networks as existing cellular networks are already loaded.

We are presently in experimentation mode and finding business models around the various locations that we’re looking to deploy. We have invested $10 million in the GIFT project and expect to see a ROI within 10 to 15 years.

What is Tata’s overall vision for IoT?

The next three billion will come from emerging and developing markets. We think there’s going to be more creative and innovative applications coming out of emerging markets. We will seek to empower the next three billion and the objects that surround them. We believe there is strong potential in these markets and are undergoing a large-scale experimentation in India.

Every single operator out there is saying that the value of the network is shrinking. We’ve been constrained in the value chain and are trying to move up and down the chain to find more value. We are seeing SDN and NFV creating networks based on bits and pieces of networks. When it comes to IoT, it’s the same thing. Building connections is one thing but you need to have the wiring and the capacity – the wireless and wireline – to run it. That value is now moving into the software layer.

We are servicing 1,600 carriers around the world which have different requirements from enterprises who are also moving into software-defined everything and asking us to manage their networks. The whole software layer is becoming increasing important – that’s an area we’re definitely looking at.

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