It’s a classic case of industry hype overtaking any realistic expectations of a new technology — the story of the birth of narrowband-IoT (NB-IoT) and how commercial hopes for the 4G technology have been severely damped down, at least in North America and Europe.
The technology is designed to serve a specialized niche: connectivity based around the LTE spec, but implemented to connect static sensors on a network and provide the high battery life required (10 years or more), along with the minimal data rates (think kilobits per second!) needed to accomplish a miniscule data transmission once a month, or less.
NB-IoT is specialized for IoT sensors that are often deployed indoors (or even underground) and don’t need to change their position on the network. For instance, permanently situated water sensors that only call back to the network once a month are prime candidates for an NB-IoT connection.
The resulting hype around the NB-IoT specification in the 2016 to 2018 time frame led to breathless press releases and articles, mostly from vendors, about how NB-IoT would usher in a new age of smart cities with minimal costs for carriers to upgrade their networks to support the new technology.
Although MNOs around the globe have deployed NB-IoT, the expected explosion of smart city-related sensor deployments hasn’t occurred yet, at least not in North America, Europe, and most of Asia. Japanese carrier NTT DoCoMo even shut down NB-IoT on its LTE network on March 31, 2020, “to concentrate management resources,” the carrier said in a press release.
The opposite is true in China, where the standard has been dramatically more successful than in the rest of the world so far. China Mobile had a total of 884 million IoT connections as of the end of December 2019. Counterpoint Research says that cumulative NB-IoT connections in China were at around 95 million at the end of 2019.
Adarsh Krishnan, analyst at ABI Research said in an email that China accounts for more than 92% of the global NB-IoT connections. In other words, unless you’re in China, NB-IoT doesn’t really exist.
One reason that NB-IoT is thriving in China is because of the major government support the spec has received. Whereas other LPWAN (low power IoT) technologies, such as Sigfox or LoRa, have only recently taken off in the massive nation.
Many millions of IoT connections still use the older digital cellular networks. Will the shutdown of 2G and 3G networks taking place worldwide have a positive impact on the adoption of NB-IoT?
ABI’s Krishnan tells me, “the ongoing 2G & 3G network shutdowns will have an impact on NB-IoT adoption, but the degree of the impact will vary by region… For example, in the US, existing 2G and 3G IoT connections will migrate more to LTE-M than NB-IoT, whilst, in Europe, NB-IoT might see relatively more uptake of NB-IoT from legacy network sunsets.”
You’ll be unsurprised to learn that the shutdowns will benefit the Central State most of all.
“The largest impact from 2G and 3G network sunsets have been in China where operators such as China Unicom are making way for its 5G rollouts and consequently has driven NB-IoT connections,” Krishnan says.
No-one will be surprised that the coronavirus has played its part in slowing the adoption of the narrowband tech. “The pandemic has impacted the adoption of NB-IoT,” the analyst noted. “As a connectivity technology, NB-IoT is relatively a new technology. Additionally, with the market uncertainties and supply chain disruptions caused by the pandemic, the adoption outside of China has been slower than earlier anticipated.”
“The disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has also reinforced the value of digital technologies to enterprises,” Krishnan notes. “Enterprises that invested in IoT in the past have fared much better at managing their day-to-day business operations due to automation and better visibility of the supply chain flows during the pandemic compared to the others. Now as we come (out) of the pandemic and economic activity starts to ramp up, end-to-end supply chain visibility becomes even more critical for flexible and efficient management of end-market demand.”
Despite the lack of huge commercial contracts for NB-IoT in most of the world, the narrowband technology is assured a future, as the technology is being incorporated in the 3GPP 5G Release-17 massive Machine Type Communications (mMTC) specification. The latest 5G spec is expected to be frozen this June, with commercial chips and devices expected to follow around 9 months to a year after Release 17 is frozen.
The big difference between the 4G version of NB-IoT and the 5G variant is in the number of IoT sensors supported in each cell. Compared to a total of 60,680 sensors that NB-IoT can currently support on a 4G network, 5G will support 1 million sensors or devices per square kilometer.
Some Chinese operators have already started vast sensor deployments on 4G, but these will be dwarfed by their 5G successors.
Massive sensor deployments are less likely to take-off in the U.S. and Europe because of the complex relations between government, industry, and mobile operators. NB-IoT will become an unsexy, utilitarian technology in much of the world. China will remain the cash cow for Nb-IoT for the foreseeable future.
India could also become a global player in NB-IoT, second only to China, as its narrowband software updates come online. There are interesting satellite-based deployments already being launched that provide pan-Indian coverage to sensors and other unconnected machines.
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