I have long believed that telcos and communications providers should try to run their networks more like Amazon and Google run their clouds. The focus should be on connecting devices quickly, billing on-demand and customizing offerings for customers who can get what they need without having to call a person.
Technically, this is now possible. Some carriers, such as AT&T with its Domain 2.0 effort, are moving toward it. But for the internet of things, on-demand and cheap connectivity is essential. When there are billions of connected devices, you can’t expect carriers to have a one-to-one relationship with each device. There’s no way you can put a SIM card into a sensor, expect a local telco provider to provision it and then mail you a bill each month.
Actility is solving this problem with software called ThingPark that combines necessary ingredients such as device provisioning, billing and business rules in one place. The six-year-old company sells its software to telco equipment providers like Cisco, Nokia and others who then embed the software into their base stations.
Then service providers such as Orange, Comcast, NTT, Softbank and others use the software to create pools of connectivity that connected devices can tap into.
It’s a complicated business, but the net result is that if a logistics company calls Orange hoping to track its fleet around the world, Orange can ask what sensors the logistics provider wants to use, make sure drivers for those sensors are in the ThingPark system, and then offer an array of radio options around the world.
Mike Mulica, the CEO of Actility, says the software acts as a marketplace so companies that want to provide the pieces for the internet of things don’t have to spend time and money doing one-off integrations and deals. Instead, customers like CIOs of cities or manufacturing plants, can navigate the Actility-provided software from their service provider and connect things in real-time as they are needed.
Mulica believes that his flexible model will work well for IoT, where the cost of connecting a device has to be low. Mulica’s worldview is right on, and investors seem to agree. This week, Actility raised $75 million in a D round of funding from new investors Creadev, Bosch and Inmarsat which joined existing investors like Orange and Swisscom.
Inmarsat’s participation is a sign of Actility’s ambitions. Actility signed a deal earlier this year with the satellite company to provide connectivity backhaul for sensors in areas where internet access is tough to get. Ships or remote mining operations are examples.
Actility also supports cellular standards like LTE-M and NB-IoT. But it also deals in unlicensed spectrum with support for Wi-Fi and LoRA. In fact, Mulica believes that LoRa will become the Wi-Fi of the industrial internet because companies can deploy it themselves without worrying about a cellular carrier.
Since all sorts of devices will eventually get a connection, this heterogeneous approach to different connection options and the flexible nature of Actility’s software feel like a good bet. Others must agree as Actility has some competition. Cisco bought Jasper, which is a slightly less flexible way of solving this problem and there’s a company called Aeris in Santa Clara, California that has created a similar platform called Neo.