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The Asia Pacific (APAC) region at the beginning of the year looked vastly different than it does today. Roaming was exploding in the area, led by huge increases in international travel and a surge in demand for IoT.

APAC has the largest IoT market in the world and is expected to reach 11 billion connections by 2025, according to GSMA Intelligence.

Despite the COVID-19 outbreak disrupting this trajectory, the APAC region is still poised to capitalize on machine-to-machine (M2M) communications in the short-term and to continue its growth path post COVID. 

During and after the pandemic, it is crucial that connectivity, including IoT and roaming, can be seamless across borders and provide in-depth visibility and management of connected assets. This will ensure a consistent, high quality of service and experience for enterprises, their customers, and operators’ subscribers.

Telecom Review Asia Pacific spoke to Malcolm Chan, Managing Director for BICS Asia, to gain insight on how the company’s global network is helping operators bridge their services to fuel new IoT opportunities to help operators take advantage of M2M connectivity demand.

Could you tell us a little about your role in the company and industry background?

As Managing Director of BICS Asia, I take responsibility for the entire BICS portfolio of telecom solutions. These solutions have been designed specifically to address the needs of mobile operators and enterprises in the region, including a Roaming-as-a-Service offering that helps operators quickly attain a global roaming footprint, anti-fraud services, special travel SIMs, and IoT connectivity platforms. As the leading global provider of reliable and secure mobility, voice and messaging solutions, BICS acts as the bridge between telecommunications operators and digital service providers in Asia and across the world.

I have more than 20 years’ experience in the APAC telecoms industry, previously working in a variety of roles for Fortune 500 and telecommunication companies across the region. I joined BICS in 2014 to head the APAC branch of the business and we have significantly grown our presence in the region, capitalizing on our global leadership position in roaming as well as voice and capacity solutions. Our offices in Singapore and Beijing now serve more than 250 carriers, mobile operators and partners in the region.

The development of these hubs has brought us closer to our customers in Asia. It has helped to grow our footprint in the region and position BICS as a truly pan-Asian wholesale carrier.

International roaming in the APAC region has soared exponentially in the past few years. Could you please explain why and how COVID-19 affected this?

Before the crisis we conducted some research into roaming in the region, analyzing data from our global network. This network connects more than 700 operators and 500 digital service providers and carries more than 50% of the world’s data roaming traffic. In doing so, we could reveal that data roaming traffic increased by 245% from 2018 to 2019 in APAC.

This surge in roaming traffic both in and out of the region is mainly attributed to exponential growth in IoT devices across the region. The majority of these connected devices rely on ubiquitous connectivity, allowing devices to switch operators and roam internationally as needed.

Due to the collapse of international travel as a consequence of national lockdown measures, “human” roaming has clearly taken a significant hit. The travel industry in the region is anticipating that it will take at least two years to get back to pre-COVID numbers.

However, M2M connectivity continues to experience high demand and is likely fueled by the crisis. Being able to monitor buildings and systems remotely is critical given the current situation. Fleet and logistics management is also a rising use case to help businesses perform more effectively and efficiently.

For this, BICS provides global IoT connectivity through our BICS SIM for Things solution, offering businesses reliable SIM or eSIM-based international connectivity, so that they can launch IoT devices or applications anywhere in the world. Running on our proprietary global network backbone, the solution currently enables roaming for more than 120 million IoT devices in Asia and we are working with several companies across the region to expand this.

How has COVID-19 changed the 5G roadmap in the region in terms of security for IoT deployment?  

Before the crisis, operators around the world were quickly developing their 5G roadmap and we have been working with the GSMA to help define the standards for this rollout, specifically providing 5G roaming services.

However, we see that many operators are delaying their 5G rollout due to the pandemic and there are only a handful of countries in the region that are pressing ahead. Nevertheless, our goal is to push ahead with our plans to support 5G in all regions and ensure that we are ready to support our customers when they launch their 5G services.

When these services are rolled out, fraud detection and prevention will be even more important than it is today, especially considering the enhanced use cases from an IoT perspective. The mobile industry is constantly creating standards for connectivity with a strong focus on security, thus significantly increasing the protection of mobile subscribers and connected devices. 5G standards and specifications perfectly illustrate the trajectory of security by design, integrating enhanced and reinforced radio encryption, authentication, and integrity, alongside mechanisms specifically developed for IoT.

However, individual operators cannot always spot these fraud traffic trends early enough to prevent them from affecting their networks and customers. This is where a global player like BICS, with a unique wholesale-level view of the network, can help. With an intelligent connectivity platform and high-quality global infrastructure, our IoT connectivity solution ensures protection of global connected device deployments from external attacks.

As the number of connected devices in the region continues to soar, how are businesses ensuring a consistent quality of experience for customers?

Whether companies are using IoT for consumer or industrial cases, quality is inextricably linked with choice. Many of us have experienced the importance of choice when roaming abroad. The ability to switch networks in order to get the best quality is critical to having that great user experience we have all come to expect.  

BICS offers companies that same kind of flexibility for them to choose the best type of connection and the best operator for their needs. Our IoT platform, SIM for Things, provides ubiquitous connectivity, by connecting them to our roaming hub that includes 700 operators around the world. This also helps to accelerate their IoT deployments and effectively scale them since they no longer need to sign multiple bi-lateral agreements with operators in each country where they need coverage.  

Therefore, businesses can develop simple, low-cost IoT offerings that give them autonomy and control over their IoT deployment without using a mobile operator as a gatekeeper, which is both inconvenient and expensive. With this freedom of choice, they can design the most cost-effective model while maintaining the best quality. 

For operators, they can in turn capitalize on the growth of IoT by working with us as part of our roaming hub. This includes opening up their NB-IoT and LTE-M connections, Low Powered Wide Area Networks (LPWAN), which are expected to see growing demand from the electronics sector as this solves many technical, operational and commercial challenges compared to traditional 2G, 3G and 4G connectivity. This is evidenced by a recent agreement we signed with Avent Silica in Europe to deliver this IoT connectivity to OEMs, devices and applications. 

Apart from IoT, have you seen any other major growth trends in the region?

Like most of us in the region, I have been working from home for most of the year. Remote working has seen a significant demand for Cloud Numbers and SIP Trunking solutions around the world to support both conferencing solutions as well as to call centers.

Either through the licensing of our own numbers or through partnerships with our telecom customers, we have been supporting this growth throughout the crisis. This is combined with our SIP Trunking solution to ensure that connections are seamless between VOIP and either landline or mobile numbers.

As homeworking becomes the new normal, we are also speaking with many customers about fraud prevention solutions. This can range from call encryption through our SIP Trunking solution to our Fraud Guard solution that can block fraudulent inbound and outbound calls.  

We also expect to see a rising demand for bandwidth. To support remote working as well as the exponential use in streaming services, operators will need to ensure they have sufficient bandwidth in the backend to ensure quality. BICS is helping customers maintain their service levels by providing them additional capacity.