NB-IoT – another option in the IoT toolbox

An avalanche of initiatives related to low power wireless networking hit the IoT industry during 2015. At the end of that year, the 3GPP announced that the leading players in the telecom industry had agreed to develop a joint new standard for IoT communications based on existing mobile network infrastructure.
The Narrowband-IoT (NB-IoT) standard is now in the final stage of development and should become commercially available by the end of this year.

Tobias Ryberg of analyst firm Berg Insight speaks to Simon Glassman, head of Strategic Partnerships, EMEA, u-blox, about the new standard and the opportunities it creates.

IoT Now: What’s the background to the NBIoT initiative for the mobile industry and how does it fit into the wider picture of 4G and 5G mobile technology?

SG: IoT represents a major shift in the strategic thinking of mobile technology development. Historically, all improvements from 2G to 3G and 4G were entirely focused on achieving higher data speeds. A few years ago there was a realisation that the Internet of Things will require a very different set of technologies when compared with the traditional smartphone use-case. A smartphone is designed for sending and receiving massive amounts of data during the day and being recharged during the night. IoT devices on the other hand typically send small amounts of data and may be required to operate on a single coin-cell battery for many years. In addition, the IoT market is highly sensitive to cost. The 3GPP has addressed these challenges with a number of initiatives aimed at improving its existing mobile technology standards. Cat 1/Cat 0 are existing enhancements to LTE that reduce the cost, complexity and power consumption of 4G devices. LTE-M and EC-GSM are two further tweaks to existing standards that will optimise LTE and GSM respectively for IoT. NB-IoT is specifically designed to offer a platform for ultra-low cost, low throughput use cases. The standard is designed to coexist with LTE and can be deployed in-band utilising resource blocks within normal LTE carrier or standalone for deployments in dedicated spectrum.

IoT Now: What unique use cases can NB-IoT address?

SG: Reducing cost and power consumption while increasing coverage are the principal drivers behind the development of NB-IoT. There is a wide range of IoT application areas where mass adoption is held back by the inability to meet one or more of these requirements. Smart cities and smart agriculture are amongst the biggest greenfield opportunities that require new network infrastructure and ultra-low cost radios in order to take off. For smart metering, NB-IoT offers great potential to expand the addressable market. The cost of adding communication capabilities to a utility meter is still too high outside of most developed economies. In the case of gas and water meters, power consumption is also a critical factor as they are generally battery powered. Last, but not least, network coverage is a constant issue in smart metering rollouts all over the world. Meters have a very strong tendency to turn up in difficult locations such as in cellars, deep underground or in remote rural areas.

When it comes to consumer applications, NBIoT offers the ability to connect devices directly to the Internet without using a tethered link via the user’s smartphone. Wearables, medical sensors and GPS trackers are some examples of device categories where NB-IoT could provide tethering. Household appliances are another potential area of application. The world’s largest white goods manufacturers are in the process of figuring out how to add connectivity to their products in the future. NB-IoT is a straightforward solution to this problem and doesn’t involve hooking up the appliance to the owner’s personal Wi-Fi network or smartphone. NB-IoT essentially provides one hop to the internet avoiding any complex installation and deployment issues associated with gateways; essentially ‘switch on and go’.

NB-IoT is one of several technologies that u-blox is developing to drive innovation in IoT. We are also planning to launch LTE CAT 1 products during 2016 and LTE-M products in future. We see the technologies as complementary; enabling the industry to address a wide range of IoT application and use case requirements with different data rate, power consumption, coverage, mobility and transmit frequency needs.

IoT Now: What are the benefits of NB-IoT over unlicensed spectrum-based LPWA technologies?

SG: NB-IoT is deployed in the frequency bands allocated for LTE. The key advantage of using licensed spectrum as opposed to unlicensed for long range communications is quality of service in the broadest sense: availability, reliability, robustness, ease of use, billing, etc. Licensed frequencies come with a guarantee against interference and can be more easily monitored. When using the ISM-bands, there is a constant risk that some other device or application may disrupt your service. In addition there are some fundamental aspects of scalability for unlicensed spectrum. At some point the ISM-bands will become highly congested if extensively used for IoT. The use of licensed spectrum facilitates international roaming and interoperability. NB-IoT will support international deployments right from the start in the same way as other mobile technologies. ISM-band technologies are on the other hand fragmented along geographic lines, with different frequencies allocated in Europe, North America and Asia.

IoT Now: What does the NB-IoT ecosystem look like?

SG: NB-IoT is a part of the wider cellular M2M/IoT ecosystem where key players include mobile operators, network infrastructure vendors, chipset suppliers, module vendors and systems integrators. The technology is widely supported by the leading players in the telecom industry. The GSMA’s Mobile IoT Initiative is supported by around 30 of the world’s leading mobile operators, plus OEMs, chipset, module and infrastructure companies. A key part of the initiative is the establishment of the NB-IoT Forum that will focus on fostering a global ecosystem for NB-IoT technology. Several mobile operators are launching new NB-IoT Open Labs, which will focus on new service innovation, industry development, interoperability testing and product compliance certification. There will also be coordinated efforts to drive industry awareness of the new technology and engage with key verticals.

IoT Now: What are the proof of concept NB-IoT deployments in place today trying to validate?

SG: Pre-standard NB-IoT technology has already been successfully tested in field trials in different parts of the world. Last year, u-blox took part in a pilot conducted by Vodafone and Huawei in Valencia, Spain. Vodafone and Huawei integrated

the technology on the operator’s existing mobile network and successfully communicated with a u-blox wireless module in a water meter. A key focus for the pilot was to evaluate coverage and penetration aspects of NB-IoT, which proved to be very good relative to GSM. Another early pilot was conducted by Deutsche Telekom and Huawei in Bonn, Germany. u-blox NB-IoT technology has been an integral part of these and other trials taking place in other regions.

IoT Now: How can developers get access to NBIoT technology, and when?

SG: Today, u-blox provides products and evaluation kits for developers and system integrators to allow them to experience the technology, its performance and ease of use. As soon as the final version of the NB-IoT standard is published we will be releasing further development kits and commercial products. Based on the current timetable from the standardisation bodies, the NB-IoT standard should be ready in the first half of this year. We expect that we will release our first commercial NB-IoT products in the second half of 2016. Of course, NB-IoT modules would be of limited use without networks. Fortunately, the strong support from many of the world’s largest mobile operators makes us confident that there will be a rapid uptake of the technology worldwide. By 2017 we expect to see commercial NB-IoT networks across Europe and North America, as well as in China, South Korea, the Middle East and Latin America.

The exciting thing for developers is that NB-IoT opens up a huge range of applications where the total cost of ownership for the end customer, usually a company, is radically lower than using existing technology. Developers, systems integrators, and product companies can build new business around NB-IoT, secure in the knowledge that it has the whole of the cellular industry behind it and so avoids proprietary solutions with all the well-known limitations they bring.

Simon Glassman is head of Strategic Partnerships, EMEA at u-blox, a leader in semiconductor components for wireless communications and global positioning. Based in the UK, Simon has responsibility for developing and executing strategic partnering and market collaboration initiatives, with a particular focus on the rapidly growing Mobile IoT ecosystem. Key to this role is developing relationships with the mobile operator, systems integrator and IoT application enablement community. Simon joined u-blox in Sept 2015 from Numerex Corp, where he was VP, International Business Development. Simon holds a BSc in Electrical and Electronic Engineering from Cardiff University, and is a Member of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (MIET).

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