Russia’s Steppe Eagles Expose the Decades-Old Inhibitor Still Holding Back the IoT

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By Jamie Moss | 2Q 2020 | IN-5764

One of the projects conducted by the Russian Raptor and Research and Conservation Network (RRRCN) is the tracking of 13 Steppe Eagles. As an endangered species, each bird is fitted with a cellular GPS tracker that records its location three times a day and reports back each reading via four Short Message Service (SMS) “text” messages. The project generates a total of 624 texts per day. Tracking the birds allows researchers to understand the dangers faced during their southerly migrations. Unsurprisingly, however, the eagles are prone to travelling to places that are not covered by a cellular network, in which case logged coordinates are stored for later transmission once the trackers reacquire a signal. With a migratory range of 8,000 miles, from as far south and west as Namibia in Africa to as far north and east as Inner Mongolia in China, the project relies heavily on roaming services and spans many countries not considered a priority by Internet of Things (IoT) service providers for normal enterprise customers.

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Sky High Roaming

NEWS


One of the projects conducted by the Russian Raptor and Research and Conservation Network (RRRCN) is the tracking of 13 Steppe Eagles. As an endangered species, each bird is fitted with a cellular GPS tracker that records its location three times a day and reports back each reading via four Short Message Service (SMS) “text” messages. The project generates a total of 624 texts per day. Tracking the birds allows researchers to understand the dangers faced during their southerly migrations. Unsurprisingly, however, the eagles are prone to travelling to places that are not covered by a cellular network, in which case logged coordinates are stored for later transmission once the trackers reacquire a signal. With a migratory range of 8,000 miles, from as far south and west as Namibia in Africa to as far north and east as Inner Mongolia in China, the project relies heavily on roaming services and spans many countries not considered a priority by Internet of Things (IoT) service providers for normal enterprise customers.

One of the 13 eagles, named Min, spent much of its summer in 2019 in Kazakhstan without cellular coverage. On landing in Iran in October, Min’s data logger finally achieved a connection and began sending a backlog of messages, which, at a roaming rate of 49 Rubles per text—25 times higher than in Russia—cost the research team 7,000 Rubles (approximately US$110) per day. Min was one of four eagles that had spent up to three months at a time in locations too remote to send any data, and the project’s research team found all its mobile credit had been used up and they needed to sign up for a credit card just to be able to continue their work. The team set up a crowdfunding scheme through the Russian social network Vkontakte to “put money on the eagles’ phones,” raising enough in the first month to pay off the loan and fund the project for another year.

The Value of a Phone Number

IMPACT


Environmental agencies have different needs than the average IoT enterprise. Agencies need extensive remote geographic coverage and coverage in countries not normally considered a business priority where roaming is consequently more expensive. They also need to be able to operate on a non-profit budget, so have the greatest possible need for operational efficiencies and cost control. Yet environmental agencies also have needs that are identical to the average IoT enterprise. The RRRCN and Min’s story is the IoT in microcosm, encapsulating the customer’s data-driven needs and acute resource constraints: the technical challenges and the known and unknown variables that create operational setbacks; the value of predictable costs, continuity of service availability, and guaranteed outcomes; and, critically, the need for specialist support from strategic technology partners.

The location data the RRRCN collects is used to map bird migration routes and formulate political countermeasures to fatalities caused by shootings, poisoning, poaching, power line electrocution, and even wind farm blade strikes. In the case of the latter, technology intended to be “better” by virtue of being less environmentally damaging can prove problematic in other ways. Once we have the data to inform us, we can then do something about it to make things better. The RRRCN’s work highlights how users of IoT data have more important things to do than be telecoms experts and is a perfect example of how impossible it can be to replace or upgrade IoT equipment after it has been deployed. A tracker is installed shortly after the birds are born and the only way to swap out its SIM card is to recapture the two-meter wingspan animal or recover it from the corpse of a dead eagle.

Mobile roaming charges alone brought the RRRCN project perilously close to failure. It was in part the work of the RRRCN that led to the Steppe Eagles becoming listed as an Endangered Species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (ICUN) in 2015 in the first place. Yet, prior to receiving crowdfunded assistance and recognition of its plight by international media outlets, the RRCN found itself in debt to the sum of 240,000 Rubles, or approximately US$3,800. Project Manager Igor Karjakin decided their only option was to offer the eagles for individual sponsorship, where “each eagle is a mobile phone number” in need of topping up once the balance gets low. Except that really the inverse was true: something as simple as a working mobile phone number in this instance represented knowledge gained, a life preserved, and a species saved.

Volatile Variables Make or Break Use Cases

RECOMMENDATIONS


The first obstacle to the use of Machine-to-Machine (M2M) communications, the forebear of the IoT, was roaming. The earliest international telemetry units had multiple SIM slots, for enterprises to manually purchase and insert the SIM cards of the carriers they had chosen into to cover the countries they needed to operate in. It was a primitive measure, lacking in scalability, to solve a problem that more than twenty years since is still a fundamental inhibitor. The need for predictable, minimal connectivity costs and the guarantee of charges at local rates only, or preferably at a single global rate, has been a constant. It’s not because IoT users are cheap, it’s because the need for economy to maximize productivity and profitability permeates every level of the value chain. And, as the RRRCN’s experiences show, bill shock remains a volatile enough variable to make or break an IoT use case today.

Carriers need to support their IoT customers to protect them from this. It can be hard to scale downward to support organizations needing as few connections as the RRRCN, but carriers must always seek to develop horizontal competency and products with maximum re-salability that can scale to be of equal use for customers of any size. Seamless roaming is one such IoT competency that many carriers are still wrestling with the logistics of. Comprehensive knowledge about national roaming regulations the world over and, where regulatory authorities have not yet legislated, of local business practices and de facto standards, is required before IoT-specific wholesale roaming rates can be negotiated. eSIM remote re-provisioning is, in theory, a way to solve the problem, but even eSIM requires extensive upfront agreement between carriers, with “SIM-switching” proving to be a last-ditch option.

Since the story about Min was publicized, Russian carrier Megafon stepped up to offer a special tariff plan for the RRRCN. This is laudable and heads off any negative publicity it may have faced for passively contributing to the near failure of a non-profit research organization project, although Megafon was unlikely to have known what the SIM cards purchased by the RRRCN were being used for. Megafon is also rumored to have written off the cost of the charges incurred in Iran, where call records show that, bizarrely, the RRRCN’s SMS-based GSM-only data loggers were also issued with many 111 Ruble charges for purported attempted connections to local GPRS data networks. In the IoT, companies may never know where their assets will end up operating or how much that will cost; "We were completely broke and had to take out a loan to continue funding the project" said Karjakin. Fortunately, in this case, thanks to a combination of public and corporate goodwill, disaster was averted.

 

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