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Nordic CTO interview: Martin Whitlock, Telenor Connexion

Norwegian telco is growing its global reach through its internet of things business unit

Telenor Connexion sits in the same office building as its owner company Telenor, Norway’s former state-owned telco, and is one of the organisation’s growth businesses.

Telenor, through Telenor Connexion, is a global player in the internet of things (IoT), with many customers and users all over the world.  

It provides enterprise customers with IoT capabilities as a service, and has millions of devices connected to its Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud-based IoT platform.

Telenor bundles customers’ IoT requirements onto a single platform. The service includes storage, networking, cloud, data analytics and payment capabilities for businesses that want to sell services rather than products. They pay per connection/SIM.

The IoT business has seen the company spread its roots. It would be easy to think of a Telenor-owned company as being most active in the Nordics, but Telenor Connexion is undoubtedly international. It has many major global clients and works with 400 mobile roaming partners all over the world. 

“Our operations in Asia with Pakistan, Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar and Bangladesh have many more SIMs than Telenor has in the Nordic countries,” Telenor Connexion CTO Martin Whitlock tells Computer Weekly at the company’s Stockholm office.

Telenor’s interest in the IoT dates back more than 20 years, says Whitlock. It was during the late 1990s that the company began to develop its systems in-house, and in 2008, the IoT unit became the company’s Telenor Connexion subsidiary. 

Read more about Telenor Connexion

Whitlock says the organisation has customers in more than 200 markets worldwide. “Our SIM cards are everywhere really,” he says. “Our customers include Swedish companies such as Volvo Cars, Scania and Husqvarna, which are all active in many markets outside Sweden.” 

Husqvarna, whose IoT use is often mentioned at conferences in Sweden, uses Telenor Connexion SIMs to connect robotic lawn mowers. 

But there is a great opportunity for the company beyond the Nordics, which requires a different approach. “We see that there is a huge need for global solutions,” says Whitlock. “SIM cards need to operate differently in different markets.”

Telenor’s clients outside the Nordics include Japan’s Hitachi Construction Equipment, which has operations worldwide, and China’s China International Marine Containers (CIMC), one of the world’s largest manufacturers of containers. CIMC uses Telenor Connexion’s SIM cards and IoT platform to track its containers.

No one size fits all

Whitlock says the diversity of businesses that can use the IoT is one of the most interesting parts of his job. As a result of this diversity, services are developed alongside customers, he adds.

“We work with clients to develop solutions so we can understand the context in which the solution will be used – we need to see the big picture,” he says.

According to Whitlock, Telenor Connexion helps customers work out a plan, but the client first has to understand why it needs something. “It is usually easy to get started on a proof of concept and in some cases you can get to a fully developed commercial product quickly,” he says.

The company could be about to see an increase in demand as it introduces improvements to its supporting mobile technology.

Whitlock says the 5G technology that will come in the next few years will give IoT users a massive communication capability. “It is already possible today to operate the same functions with 4G – but 5G will be an add-on to the networks and will give clients more IoT power, so to speak,” he says. 

Case study: Xylem

One of Telenor Connexion’s customers outside the Nordics is Xylem, a company that produces pumps and other products for the water sector and is listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

Computer Weekly visited the company at its Swedish office in Sundbyberg, near Kista, northern Stockholm. Xylem has made water pumps for 80 years, and has now brought its products into the control systems era.

Peter Nilsson, manager of systems and digital services at the company, says Xylem made its first smart control system for pumps in 2011, and introduced the first pump with integrated intelligence in 2016.  

Nilsson joined Xylem a few years ago from Ericsson, and his work leading the development of IoT digital systems reminds him a lot of his previous role at Ericsson. New functions and ideas have to be developed quickly, and they must have commercial possibilities.

Xylem sells pumps that are connected to control systems via the IoT, and charges a subscription fee. Technicians can use the pumps without having extensive IoT or internet experience, and can easily use the system to check data and start and stop pumps.

At first, Nilsson and his team obtained a platform from Telenor Connexion that they developed into a system that works with Xylem’s pumps. From that, they made a physical product – a modem for 2G and 3G.

“The most important thing we got from Telenor Connexion is simplicity,” says Nilsson. “Anybody can now connect a pump.”

Before the new system, engineers had to have specialist knowledge about the pumps, control systems, software, telecoms and the internet. Not many have such broad experience, but with the new system, the engineer only needs to have deep knowledge about the pumps themselves.

Xylem already had a lot of experience with the internet because of its work with mission-critical pump stations. Such stations, often owned and operated by municipalities, have been connected to remote monitoring systems for years.

All this means that Xylem is at the forefront of IoT knowledge, says Nilsson. He and his team are keen to develop more new features, and clients such as municipalities are telling them what functionalities they require.

Read more on Internet of Things (IoT)

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