NarrowBand IoT (NB-IoT) - the Future Leader in the LPWAN Space!?

Tags: IoT
A picture of Märt Kroodo
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Märt Kroodo
NarrowBand IoT, also known as LTE Cat-NB1 or LTE Cat-NB2, serves the need to better accommodate IoT use-cases with large numbers of devices and low data requirements. This wireless network technology is expected to dominate the Low-Power WAN (LPWAN) field in 2-3 years time and overpower other players like Sigfox and LoRaWAN.

During the recent years we have seen a technological race to meet the demand of the booming IoT sector for longer battery life and cheaper network access. Cellular networks are not that well optimised for applications that only transmit small amounts of infrequent data and the existing cellular standards don’t support power saving capabilities. Therefore, the market have been working on new emerging wireless networks that are aimed at serving those needs. All of those network technologies are collectively called as Low-Power WAN (LPWAN) - stating the wireless wide area network technology specialised in interconnecting devices with low-bandwidth connectivity. Examples of LPWAN technologies include Sigfox, LoRaWAN, Zigbee, Z-wave. All of these infrastructures are being developed independently from mobile carrier networks and considered as startups eating into carriers' playground. However, mobile carriers do not wish to be left out of the show. Their 3GPP body, uniting telecommunications standard development organisations, have been working on new enhancements that can be added to their LTE (4G) standard and are planning to release NarrowBand IoT (NB-IoT) over the next 2-3 years time.

NB-IoT is expected to fill the gap of cheaper network access and battery saving solutions for IoT devices that consume little data. It handles small amounts of fairly infrequent 2‑way data, securely and reliably. The technology's main pros include:

  • very low power consumption
  • excellent penetration coverage
  • lower hardware costs

The big advantage of NB-IoT is that it will be a truly global standard and carriers deployment will not require the installation of any new antennas – simply a hardware and/or software upgrade to existing cellular base stations.

Practical applications of NB-IoT according to Vodafone [2]

Any devices that require low energy consumption, have low data transfer demands and are geographically dispersed or remote can benefit from NB-IoT. Devices include:

  • Gas Metering
  • Environmental Monitoring
  • Water Metering
  • Smoke and Fire Alarms
  • Liquid and pressurised fuels
  • Parking monitoring
  • Smart Bins
  • Alarms and event detectors

When will NB-IoT be available?

NB-IoT is expected to be available in core developed countries and cities by 2018 and reach its full coverage by 2020. Many big giants in telecommunication field —like Huawei, Ericsson, Qualcomm, and Vodafone - have been actively involved in putting NB-IoT standard together. It all started in 2014 when Huawei acquired Neul, a startup that was working in and had some intellectual property in NB-IoT field. From recent steps made, engineers from Vodafone and Huawei completed the world’s first trial of standardised NB-IoT on a live commercial network in Q4 2016. In October 2016, Vodafone announced that the world’s first live commercial NB-IoT networks will be in Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and Spain [2]. In January 2017, Vodafone's first commercially available NB-IoT network became operational in Spain, starting off with Valencia and Madrid [3].

LTE-M - an LTE-based alternative to NB-IoT

NB-IoT can exist either 1) independently, 2) in unused 200-KHz bands that have previously been used for GSM, or 3) on LTE base stations that can be allocate a resource block to NB-IoT operations or in their guard bands. LTE-M (also know as LTE Cat-M1 and LTE Cat-M2), however, is an attractive option for those mobile carriers looking to deploy purely current cellular networks. From the weak spots, LTE-M power efficiency may not be fully comparable to NB-IoT and chips may come with a bit higher cost. Also, NB-IoT can handle wider deployment coverages than LTE-M. Therefore, the adoption of either NB-IoT or LTE-M depends partly on mobile carrier's preference. 

NB-IoT vs LTE-M difference in bandwidth
NB-IoT 0.2 MHz
LTE-M 1.4 MHz

What's next?

The speed of NB-IoT adoption is not only dependent on mobile carriers, but relies on modem/hardware component vendors as well. Chipsets are broadly in prototype stage and may not be out soon enough. Another weak spot is pricing - it has not yet been disclosed what the exact data cost would be. Therefore, if you need to go to market with your solution or device soon, NB-IoT and LTE-M are not yet real options for you. 1oT sees NarrowBand IoT to become the dominant technology in LPWAN field in 2 years time and is already making steps to become one of the first to offer it to IoT device makers (OEMs), worldwide. Until then, we are recommending to stick to cellular networks even if you are considering LPWAN networks - read more about why we thinks so from here.

Extra: Deutche Telecom's webinar about NarrowBand IoT:

[1] Huawei acquired Neul in 2014: link

[2] Vodafone about NB-IoT: link

[3] Vodafone's NB-IoT release in January 2017: link

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