The IoT Network That Has Always Been There

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By Jamie Moss | 4Q 2018 | IN-5332

Imagine a single IoT network that is cost-effective enough to send 10,000 messages per device each month, for a monthly subscription fee of US$1. Imagine a single IoT network that is globally available and guaranteed to persist for as long as you need it. Finally, imagine that such a network is already up and running and just waiting for you to connect your devices to it. It sounds too good to be true, but this is the premise of Thingstream, an USSD-over-MQTT-based IoT messaging service.

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Connectivity Is Almost Free


Imagine a single IoT network that is cost-effective enough to send 12,000 messages per device each month, for a monthly subscription fee of US$2. Imagine a single IoT network that is globally available and guaranteed to persist for as long as you need it. Finally, imagine that such a network is already up and running and just waiting for you to connect your devices to it. It sounds too good to be true, but this is the premise of Thingstream, an MQTT-over-USSD-based IoT communication service.

Thingstream is the only cellular Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity provider currently using Message Queuing Telemetry Transport (MQTT) over Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) as its bearer. USSD is an oft-forgotten cellular protocol that uses the signaling channel to transmit 182-character messages in a real-time two-way session. USSD is embedded into all GSM-evolved technologies and is designed for communications between a mobile terminal and a service provider, as a command-and-control mechanism for querying application servers or for triggering applications. Thingstream marries USSD with the complementary MQTT, which is a one-to-many communication protocol, allowing centralized service providers to communicate with groups of devices, in a network architecture where each client entity is defined as either a “publisher” or a “subscriber” to a service.

Thingstream does not own a cellular Radio Access Network (RAN) but has brokered an agreement with a strategic carrier partner for the wholesale purchase of USSD messages. This partner’s roaming agreements allow Thingstream devices to connect viaany available cellular network worldwide—2G, 3G, or 4G— to the Thingstream Connectivity Platform, which in turn connects to an enterprise customer’s IoT applications. As a smaller but well-funded and ergo well-equipped carrier, Thingstream’s strategic partner has lots of spare signaling capacity, as well as available IMSI number blocks, which Thingstream uses in the Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) cards it distributes to customers. Launched quietly in September 2017, and still not widely known about, Thingstream provides unparalleled value for the money, offering 12,000 messages for US$2 per month, per IoT device.

Thingstream provides enterprises with a Software Development Kit (SDK) to specify each USSD message, a message broker to design workflows, and capacity on the Thingstream Connectivity Platform. An enterprise will not even need its own MQTT backend gateway, as Thingstream hosts a cloud-based one for them. In addition to the low per device per month fee, enterprises can purchase a la carte premium workflow adaptors that allow advanced operations, in a similar way to the carriers’ sale of network Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). The extra adaptors could be worth up to an additional US$1 per month per device. What Thingstream really believes it is doing is productizing sensor data integration, and the problem that it seeks to solve is the speed to realization of successful IoT device data ingestion into enterprise IoT platforms. Thingstream sees its customers as subscribers to a software service where the connectivity is, in practice, almost free.

Asset Tracking in the Crosshairs


USSD is a decades-old addition to the GSM standards, but the utility it potentially offers for the IoT is, on paper, outstanding. USSD appears functional enough to deeply trouble proponents of the ultra-narrowband Sigfox, and maybe even for some applications like LoRa, LTE-M, and NB-IoT. USSD is real-time, SS7-based, bi-directional, and symmetrical, and operates using licensed spectrum, giving it a quality of service that exceeds Sigfox and LoRa. USSD can be used by any device with a GSM-evolved modem and receive coverage from any generation of GSM-evolved network, operated by any carrier worldwide. Burgeoning network shutdowns do not affect it, nor are any additional network rollouts or upgrades required, giving it a level of availability and redundancy far greater than LTE-M and NB-IoT.

USSD connectivity pricing is as low as Sigfox, at an effective rate of US$0.90 per megabyte, but with a network that is already globally available and at no cost to service provider, Thingstream. Despite using existing cellular technology, Thingstream can purportedly do so but with a lower level of power consumption than technologies that are designed from the ground up to be IoT optimized. MQTT over USSD is slated to use 20% less power than cellular normally does, for less time than it would otherwise take to transmit the same amount of data over Internet Protocol (IP). By being able to use any cellular network, a modem’s power amplifier is driven less hard to find one suitable, plus it is possible to send USSD data even when IP data cannot be.

The primary potential market for USSD in the IoT is mobile asset tracking applications, especially where no traditional data connection can be guaranteed. USSD has explicit limitations that restrict its use, it cannot be used to send large data payloads, the data must be sent in 182-character blocks, no high-bandwidth communication is possible, and while it is usable it is less advantageous for fixed assets, where LoRa and NB-IoT may out compete it. It is USSD’s guarantee of a connection being available that is most compelling, especially for a very light data payload. USSD can have other protocols layered on top of it and claims to be able to reliably transport up to a megabyte of data, but the sweet spot for a single message is apparently 4 Kilobytes (KB), rendering LTE-M more useful for higher bandwidth mobile IoT needs.

Deep Trust Is the Key


Does Thingstream’s bet on USSD being a powerful enabler for the IoT have real substance to it? Asset tracking using removeable tags is expected to be a huge long-tail driver for IoT connections for both cellular and proprietary technologies, with myriad applications in the mid-to-long term. The opportunities for scale are great, providing that the price and power consumption can be low enough, and the coverage great enough. In the long run, it is likely that even those consumers wishing to casually track personal possessions will want a guarantee of effectiveness, giving technologies using licensed spectrum an edge, even at the low end of the IoT. But Thingstream is not just banking on the future, it is actively seeking to retrofit its system to existing cellular devices, which is something only Sigfox has previously been able to do, by flashing its slimline protocol stack onto the Microcontroller Unit (MCU) of devices already in the field.

What can other carriers do about Thingstream using their infrastructure to provide a global service that may potentially compete with them? Very little it would seem, as Thingstream’s mode of operation is not analogous to a traditional Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) and cannot be easily shut off. USSD is signaling traffic, which Thingstream’s strategic carrier partner reconciles with its roaming partners on a wholesale basis for the transmission of. If other carriers were to cancel this agreement, it would ruin all roaming signaling with that carrier for all cellular devices. However as stated, USSD and its asset tracking focus seems to be a bigger threat to Sigfox and Lora than it is LTE-M and NB-IoT, filling a potential gap in the carriers’ ultra-narrowband service offering, so they may wish to partner with and resell Thingstream’s services instead.

Thingstream’s go-to-market strategy is specific: it wishes to penetrate the engineering community and the suppliers they rely on, each of whom can communicate downstream on the availability and capability of the vendor’s technology. Can Thingstream’s business model be replicated by other third parties? To do so would require the deep trust of a carrier, as it is necessary for a USSD service provider to feed directly into a carrier’s signaling architecture. Very few companies have such relationships, outside of infrastructure giants like Huawei, ZTE, Nokia Networks, and Ericsson. A USSD gateway vendor would be one of the best companies to understand how to reboot this-lesser known messaging technology for IoT purposes and to gain carrier trust. It is no coincidence that Thingstream itself is an offshoot of the Myriad Group, owners of the USSD gateway and software vendor Myriad Connect.


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