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The Beginning Year of Narrowband IoT Sparks New Trends


The release of the R14 Narrowband Internet of Things (NB-IoT) Standard by the Third 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) in December 2017 announced the beginning of NB-IoT commercial applications in 2018. Looking back at the previous generations of mobile communications, each stage of development has clearly brought changes to everyday life and enhanced the convenience of data transmissions and acquisition. Specifically, the second generation of mobile communications provided mobile voice calls; the third generation initiated mobile networking; and the fourth generation ushered in mobile video streaming services.   

 Under the current 4G telecommunications infrastructure, people can access all data deliverable via the network, which has led to demands for increased and richer networked data and, thus, generated commercial opportunities for the IoT, which is designed to cope with the need for increased data.

NB-IoT Brings IoT to Commercial Applications 

 Prior to the 3GPP R14 specification, standards supporting IoT on mobile carriers included LTE Cat.0 (R12) and LTE Cat.M1 (R13). Both R12 Cat.0 and R13 Cat.M1 provide uplink and downlink peak rates at 1 Mbit/s, while R12 Cat.0 supports allocated bandwidths for user equipment of up to 20 MHz and R13 Cat.M1 of up to 1.4 MHz. Compared to the previous standard R8 Cat.1, which provided a downlink and uplink peak rate of 10 Mbps/5 Mbps, respectively, and 20 MHz UE bandwidth; and Cat.4, which supports a downlink and uplink peak rate of 150 Mbps/50 Mbps and 20 MHz bandwidth, we can see that the earlier standards placed more emphasis on services for faster downlink transmission speeds.

Unlike their predecessors, the R12 Cat.0 and R13 Cat.M1 specifications have reduced uplink and downlink speeds and provide narrower UE bandwidth, which is closer to the practical application requirements of the IoT and resulted in reduced chip prices. When conventionally more expensive mobile communications become cheaper, the opportunities for implementing the IoT in commercial applications grows rapidly.

As previously stated, the evolution from Cat.4 to Cat.1, Cat.0, and Cat.M1 was basically in response to the practical scenarios of IoT usage. Unlike conventional mobile communication devices that require faster downlink speeds and lower uplink speeds, IoT terminal devices are primarily installed to upload data. Meanwhile, because most IoT terminal devices are only used to upload a small amount of data, necessitating an uplink rate as low as dozens of bits per second, they have a higher tolerance for data transmission latency. Even delays of several seconds does not negatively impact data collection on the server side.

The R14 NB-IoT specification was established to accommodate the usage scenarios of most IoT terminal devices. IoT terminal devices typically support an uplink peak rate of 60 kbps and a downlink peak rate of 20 kbps, with the UE bandwidth capped at 200 kHz, and are completely tailored to meet the actual needs of smaller data parcels in IoT applications. This specification uses very short and non-sequel transmission timeslots, which means that the NB-IoT is able to reduce power consumption, conquering one of the most critical challenges for mobile communication applications as well as the IoT market. The R14 NB-IoT also strikes a balance between cost and the market-expected price of RF transceivers and users.

The NB-IoT was standardized in response to the requirements of most IoT usage scenarios by emphasizing lower transmission rates and reduced power consumption. However, in some circumstances, certain IoT applications will need to use other mobile communication protocols. For example, communications between mobile devices and base stations must overcome “handover” issues that can break the link between mobile devices and base stations when the device is travelling from one base station cell to another. To avoid failed handovers, LTE Cat.M1 is more suitable for IoT telecommunications because it provides a wider transmission bandwidth in order to allow data packets to accommodate a more sufficient fault-tolerance code.

If IoT terminal devices are required to transmit a large amount of data, such as high-resolution image streams, Cat.1 and Cat.4 would be more suitable. The ideal option depends on the size of data transmissions. If the amount of data that must be delivered is very large and real-time transmission is required, the 5th Generation Mobile Communications standard to be released later this year will be the best for addressing latency for these types of applications. The corresponding technologies and scenarios are presented in Figure 1 .

NB-IoT Expected to Sweep the IoT Market by 2020 

 The benefits of NB-IoT include wide coverage, low power consumption (no need to change batteries for 5 ~ 10 years), low cost, and the ability to connect large fleets of devices using existing 2G/3G/LTE cellular network infrastructures. NB-IoT has been adopted by tier one telecom operators such as Vodafone, China Mobile, China Telecom, and China Unicom. Moreover, upstream IC manufacturers such as Huawei, Qualcomm, Intel, and Sanechips have supplied NB-IoT chips and module solutions.

As a recently standardized technology, NB-IoT faces competitive pressure from the incumbent Sigfox and LoRa regarding price. However, the NB-IoT supply chain has a high market concentration ratio for chips, modules, terminals, carriers, and applications, and has won the support of top companies in the communication industry. Many leading telecom carriers, equipment builders, and companies paying attention to applications of low-power networks have adopted this new technology trend. Additionally, much research and analysis predicts good long-term prospects for NB-IoT because of its relative advantages.

However, the cost of NB-IoT chips and modules must first be reduced in order to trigger widespread market demand, or NB-IoT will have a hard time competing with other LPWAN technology solutions. In addition, deployment times and cost must be improved in terms of network utilization and optimization. Current estimates indicate that 85% of cellular communication base stations only have to upgrade their software to support NB-IoT operations, while the rest will need a hardware revamp to implement NB-IoT and that will require increased infrastructure investment by carrier operators. 

Despite the various challenges to network deployment, especially for facilities situated in complex and harsh environments that affect network coverage and signal transmission, various optimization tools are required to improve signal quality. However, the upfront investment will generate huge market opportunities for the IoT. Indeed, the number of global M2M devices is predicted to reach 7 billion by 2020.

Looking to the future, the application scenarios of NB-IoT could cover many business field, including smart power/water meters, smart street lighting, intelligent transportation, intelligent environmental monitoring, smart locks, smart lamps, smart sockets, object tracking, industrial automation control, agricultural monitoring, security monitoring, iRetail, and iHospitals. However, there are moderate barriers to entering these fields for NB-IoT. That is, accelerating the establishment of an industrial partnership ecosystem in order to create business models for NB-IoT is challenging. Additionally, during the process, a lot of collaborative effort will be required to solve the interoperability, compatibility, and consistency issues.  

Coping with the complexity and diversity of the IoT industry necessitates joint efforts from all sides of the vertical supply chain to establish NB-IoT industrial ecosystem. This will in turn create more cross-area applications based on low-power wide-area (LPWA) technologies that will cultivate a more diverse and comprehensive industrial ecosystem and accelerate the implementation and prevalence of NB-IoT.

In summation, the factors that will affect the NB-IoT adoption rate include the progress of network deployment and promotion efforts by telecom carriers. Most importantly, NB-IoT adoption will depend on the innovation of business models on behalf of telecom carriers. The terminal devices of NB-IoT applications generate only a small data traffic volume and thus are sensitive to cost. If cellular LPWA networks are merely used for data transmissions, the likely revenue growth will not be high even if carriers increase the quantity of networking equipment. 

Compared to other LPWA technologies, for example, LoRa (and the establishment of the LoRa Alliance in March 2015), NB-IoT was standardized later and was not formally recognized until the second half of 2017. Accordingly, NB-IoT lags behind other LPWA technologies in terms of supply chain and market maturity. However, the number of applications that use NB-IoT has been increasing gradually, with some providing creative service models that have not been seen before. While promoting the formation of NB-IoT ecosystem, many carriers have started providing network services and moved towards data analytics platforms and service solutions that will change their roles in the IoT value chain. For telecom carriers, they must introduce new business models to cope with the innovation of IoT networks. In the long-term, carrier must increase cloud applications, data retrieval, data storage, data security, and even data analytics by combining artificial intelligence and comprehensive solutions in order to increase NB-IoT-related business opportunities.

Going All Out to Develop a Multitude of Applications   

Considering the global market, many telecom carriers in China, Asia, and Europe have already launched NB-IoT network services. Most of them deployed NB-IoT on 800 MHz, 900 MHz, or sub-GHz spectrum bands, or use the already commercialized LTE 1,800 MHz band. Additionally, most of the carriers accelerate deployment via software upgrades, which reduce the difficulty of installing access network equipment while also driving IoT popularity.

Although the carriers’ business models have shifted from networking services for mobile devices to providing platform integration for the entire NB-IoT ecosystem, many have established NB-IoT laboratories to accelerate the development of NB-IoT products and application services, transforming into cloud-based big data platforms (e.g., the Cloud of Things operated by Deutsche Telecom) and reinforcing the operator’s role in the IoT value chain.

Once the deployment of LPWAN access networks is addressed, PaaS IoT platforms and NB-IoT M2M modules can be used to develop applications related to smart city, smart agriculture, environmental monitoring, vehicle/infrastructure monitoring, intelligent parking, smart street lighting, intelligent metering, and bicycle hire, which has become a hot topic in recent years. With its features of reduced chip size and low power consumption, the NB-IoT is expected to be applied to wearables, tracking devices for the elderly and children, and monitoring devices for livestock husbandry. Driven by operators, 2018 is expected to be a wonderful beginning for NB-IoT and a booming year for the IoT. 

Consider China as an example, pushed by governmental policy, the growth of the NB-IoT’s integration in commercial applications has been the fastest in the world. The most widespread use is in the smart metering of water, electricity, and gas, which was primarily implemented by the local agencies responsible. For example, the Fuzhou Water Company purchased 300,000 NB-IoT-based smart water meters in 2018, and China Telecom provided smart gas meters that transmit 12 data packages each time, including usage volume, alarm records, and meter readings, to 6,000 households in Shenzhen.

Smart cars may use NB-IoT modules to transmit data regarding vehicle status, position tracking, or fleet management in order to facilitate data acquisition, rescue, or fleet management operations. Insurers even can use big data analysis to determine appropriate insurance premiums according to the analysis results of drivers’ driving behaviors, in addition to the standard criteria of age and sex.   

 Conventionally, smart home devices are based primarily on Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and ZigBee wireless technologies. In China, Haier Group has rolled out a NB-IoT-based smart life platform called NB-UHomekit that provides communication protocols to enable smart home appliances and intelligent community solutions.

Regarding medical applications, remote health management has mainly relied on Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technologies to transmit data acquired from smart blood pressure monitors and glucose meters to a health management platform that allows doctors to monitor patient health using real-time measurement data.   

 However, with the integration of NB-IoT, health care devices will not need to be connected to a Wi-Fi access point to support wireless communications. This will reduce power consumption, which will help prolong the operating duration of wearable devices. Using a dedicated NB-IoT network to transmit data instead of Wi-Fi will also provide enhanced data security and reliability, by eliminating leaks of personal information during data transmissions. For telemedicine solutions, collected data can be used to build personalized health management models, chronic disease management models, and customized health management services.

Consider Advantech’s NB-IoT solution as an example. This solution uses the M2.COM-compliant WISE-1570 as an IoT sensor node and incorporates an ARM Cortex M4 microprocessor and 3GPP R14-based NB-IoT wireless technology. All the necessary pin-outs are provided for all types of sensors, such as UART, I2C, SPI, GPIO, PWM, and ADC. Advantech also collaborated with ARM in providing Pelion Cloud Service, which can shorten the development time for cloud-based IoT applications and accelerate the development of NB-IoT applications in areas such as smart city, smart farming, environmental monitoring, vehicle/infrastructure monitoring, iParking, smart street lighting, smart metering, and the bicycle rental business.   

 In conclusion, NB-IoT is suitable for immobile IoT equipment with low traffic density and low power consumption, and can satisfy most IoT usage scenarios. NB-IoT solutions can satisfy the requirements of the majority of IoT terminal equipment. With the ongoing commercialization of NB-IoT, 2018 is expected to be the year for NB-IoT’s dominance. The corresponding hardware requirements will be sensor modules combined with NB-IoT modules, which will subsequently be integrated into application processes.

Vertical integrators must be capable of providing physical hardware, firmware support, wireless communication systems, integration services, and cloud-based application servers simultaneously. Additionally, they must provide big data analysis models with authentication mechanisms to ensure data security. This will enable business models to be easily and rapidly duplicated for many application scenarios by simply choosing appropriate hardware and firmware and applying existing vertical integration processes and experience.