Along with AI and machine learning, the Internet of Things has quickly emerged as one of the most prominent technologies and an integral part of Industry 4.0, says Sunil David, the regional director (IoT) at AT&T (India). His genuine interest in this technology has helped him emerge as one of the influential names in IoT in India. He also mentors young aspirants willing to join this field.
In a conversation with Analytics India Magazine, David spoke about IoT, its current state and predictions for the future.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
AIM: What was the inspiration behind pursuing a career in the field of IoT?
Sunil David: My interest in IoT developed sometime around 2012 when I was in my first stint with AT&T India as Regional Sales Head for South. I used to attend industry events in India as a delegate which were related to digital transformation and IoT, which was in its early days as far as awareness was concerned. I would attend a lot of conferences on IoT held in different cities and countries. In February 2013, I attended the Mobile World Congress held in Barcelona, a fantastic experience. I could see many Telecom providers showcasing M2M and IoT solutions in their booths, and that is when I really took a significant interest in understanding IoT. I realised then that it was not just a new revenue stream for Telecom providers but also a transformative technology that can positively impact enterprises, consumers and society at large.
It was still early days in India as far as I was concerned, but I used to attend pretty much every IoT Industry event across India, follow IoT related news and developments across the world. AT&T, at that point in time, had limited IoT capabilities, but I used to still make an effort to position our IoT capabilities to our enterprise customers in India.
I will always cherish the one unforgettable moment when I met Kevin Ashton, who coined the term “Internet of Things” at an AT&T organised customer event held in Singapore in mid-2015. I left AT&T India in late 2015 and joined Telstra India as Head of Enterprise Sales for India for a year.
I rejoined AT&T to Head the IoT Business for India and ASEAN. Even though my role was restricted to Sales and Business Development, I focused a lot on our marketing initiatives by using opportunities at industry forums to position AT&T IoT capabilities, connecting with IoT startups and attempted to build our partner ecosystem in India, given that IoT is an ecosystem play.
AIM: How has IoT changed over the years? Has there been any significant improvement?
Sunil David: In March 2017, when I took up my new role Heading the IoT Business, the adoption of IoT in India was still very low compared to other markets in Asia, Europe and North America. But on the positive side, there was increased awareness. Earlier, while speaking to our clients, we had to explain what IoT was. Now, they already understand the tech and want to know how to get started. The conversation has changed. The focus of the discussions is centred around discussing use cases, technical architecture, how to get started with a POC and how they could get an ROI from their investment in IoT.
Currently, while IoT adoption has picked up in India amongst large enterprises, it is still relatively low compared to developed markets like China, Singapore, Europe and the US. Enterprises have not been able to scale up their IoT projects barring a few. Also, adoption amongst the MSMEs in India (especially Manufacturing MSMEs) is abysmally low, and this is a matter of concern given that MSMEs are a key contributor to the economic growth of our country and towards employment and exports. The MSMEs should understand that implementing IoT is now needed for survival and growth. Simple IoT Mantra – “Think of the Big picture, Start Small and Scale Fast”. What we see today is POCs or pilots lasting a very long time, and secondly, scaling is happening at a very low pace. True value and ROI can be realised only when projects scale.
Interestingly, ever since the outbreak of COVID-19, we have seen increased adoption of IoT, albeit in specific industries. For e.g., in manufacturing, we see IoT use cases around remote monitoring of industrial assets in a factory and products in the field, and IoT-enabled safety and health solutions.
However, most IoT implementations have been used in areas around cost reduction, efficiency improvement, etc., which is very bottom-line focused. We have not seen IoT spend in areas around revenue generation and customer experience improvement.
AIM: Where does India stand in the IoT race? How does it compare with China, which is considered a leader in this field?
In India, IoT adoption is still confined to key sectors – Manufacturing, Transportation and Logistics, Energy and Utilities sectors. Smart City projects have also leveraged IoT to a certain extent, but adoption is still on the lower side. However, the use of IoT in healthcare and consumer IoT (Smart Homes) definitely has scope for improvement.
Enterprises should realise that IoT is not just a nice-to-have but a strategic necessity for companies for survival and growth. Some of the challenges that India faces are:
- The cost of IoT devices is still higher compared to China and acts as a barrier for adoption – for any IoT solution. The hardware cost alone makes for 40 per cent of the overall solution cost.
- Telecom infrastructure in India needs to be improved.
- Lack of IoT skills
- A lack of stable and consistent regulatory regime covering all important dimensions – IoT device procurement with e-SIMs, certification and security of devices, IoT network connectivity and regulations around permanent roaming, and finally around data storage, residency and governance.
China’s major advantage is that it is a manufacturing powerhouse, contributing almost 29 per cent to global manufacturing output. In the case of electronics manufacturing and especially IoT devices, China has a very good ecosystem that has been built over many years. The cost of IoT devices in China is very low, given the huge ecosystem it has built with suppliers of memory and network modules and semiconductor chips.
The second advantage is that the policies are tailored for IoT adoption. These policies are consistent, and there is very little room for ambiguity. The government has also been pushing hard for the adoption of Industry 4.0, of which IoT forms an integral part. Enterprises are far more mature in adopting as they have realised that IoT adoption can give them a competitive edge. Most market reports forecast that China will continue to lead when it comes to IoT adoption in the next five years.
In terms of policy-level intervention in India, the government has launched the Production Linked Incentive Scheme (PLIS), which intends to give a huge thrust and impetus to electronics manufacturing, including IoT devices. A lot of assembly work of IoT devices is being done in India as we are still dependent on countries like China, Taiwan, Korea, etc., to import sensors, network modules, semiconductor chips, etc. If we build a good ecosystem in India of all the different components that go into making an IoT device, which might take a few years, I am confident that we will emerge as a leader in IoT device manufacturing. Further, if we have the required scale that factors the large domestic market and the export opportunities, the cost of IoT devices will come down drastically.
The Cellular Communication Networks in India are still patchy, given the limited amount of spectrum they need to manage and hence there is scope for improvement here as well. The Indian telecom providers have their own challenges to deal with – for e.g., high spectrum costs, high taxation and low ARPUs. Another most important aspect is skill development in IoT and applied areas. We need skill from both the end-user (consumer of IoT services ) and supply (provider) side to ensure we have enough IOT skilled talent to deliver, implement and manage complex IoT solutions.
AIM: What is the role of AI in IoT?
Sunil David: In the near future, we will see an amalgamation of AI and IoT. A new term called AIoT is being talked about now and will definitely be the future of Industry 4.0. Just extracting information from the physical world is not enough. We need to get value from the humongous amount of data that has been collected and then use the insights from the data that will help drive decision making. While IoT can extract data from physical assets, it is important to add context to the add and correlate data from multiple data sources. This is where AI and machine learning can play a huge part by ensuring we get the right insights, predict outcomes and eventually get to a prescriptive stage when action can be taken to prevent anomalies from occurring.
AIM: IoT technology is not immune to security scares. Especially in a healthcare setting, IoT security becomes a major concern. What are your comments on this?
Sunil David: Today, one of the biggest barriers to IoT adoption is security. In IoT, we connect physical assets to the Internet. The moment an IoT device is connected to an asset and thus exposed to the Internet, it becomes potentially hackable. The IoT device is the weakest link in the chain. If it is compromised, the attacker can take full control of the system and create havoc, and the damage can be irreversible.
Many IoT device manufacturers lay less emphasis on the security of the device since it is an additional cost. We need to engineer the device in such a way that it does not compromise on security. Securing the IoT device alone is not enough, but we must certify these devices by going through a stringent certification process. Such certifications will give confidence to the companies using the devices.
When an IoT device is built, security is often considered an afterthought. When you are designing, security should be the topmost priority and consideration. The Telecom regulatory body of India came up with guidelines in 2017 saying that every IoT device manufacturer would need to follow security by design guidelines. It is still a guideline and not a policy. If it becomes a policy, it will go a long way in ensuring IoT security for devices. Finally, when it comes to security, it is not enough to secure the IoT device alone; one needs to secure the network, the applications, and the data on the cloud as well. Hence, a holistic approach is needed to address security from an IoT standpoint.
AIM: Has IoT lived up to the hype?
Sunil David: No, it hasn’t lived up to the hype. There has been a lot of hype earlier. IoT’s potential has still not been explored fully. There is a lot of work that needs to be done from the IoT solutions providers, industry bodies, etc. to come together and constantly advocate the importance of the positive business impact that IoT technology can generate and how it can lead to better business outcomes – be it reducing costs, increasing revenue, or better customer experience, etc.
With the lower cost of IoT devices coming down, our communication networks getting better, loud adoption increasing, and AI being democratised, I see no reason why adoption will not increase. All key stakeholders – government for building the policy and framework, industry bodies, industry and academia – need to collaborate very closely to make this happen. From a consumer standpoint, given that one needs to pay an extra cost to leverage IoT enabled consumer appliances and other IoT enabled gadgets like smart wearables, etc., one needs to see the value that can be derived from using the technology. If the customer sees value and it enhances their convenience and provides a better user experience, they will be willing to pay a premium for the service.
(The views expressed by the interviewee is of their own and do not represent that of AT&T)
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I am a journalist with a postgraduate degree in computer network engineering. When not reading or writing, one can find me doodling away to my heart’s content.