Narrowband-IoT takes to the stage

Narrowband-IoT takes to the stage

The challenge of building dense, highly scalable, wide-area IoT networks has been met by new entrants such as SIGFOX and LoRa. But the recent announcement of a 3GPP standard for narrowband cellular IoT has generated a flourish of excitement. Bill Harpley, MD and Lead Technologist at Astius Technology, takes a look at why this long awaited breakthrough is so significant for cellular operators and their customers.

Building the Everynet

You’ve all seen the sunny IoT forecasts but in order to make IoT scale to such dizzying heights, we need to build long-range networks with these essential attributes:

  • Low energy consumption for gateways and endpoints.
  • Battery life of 10yrs+ for endpoints.
  • Low-cost hardware.
  • Optimised for periodic transmission of small data packets.

Sadly, the current generation of 2G and 4G cellular M2M solutions do not meet these stringent requirements.

This has created a window of opportunity from which a new class of low-power networks has emerged. Collectively known as LPWANs, a few of the now familiar company names in that market are SIGFOX, LoRa Alliance and Weightless from Neul.

The cellular industry awakes

There can be no doubt that the success of SIGFOX has spooked the cellular industry. In June 2015, the GSMA launched its Mobile IoT initiative , under the banner of “Mobile IoT = Trusted IoT.”

The 3GPP began to frame its response to the LPWAN revolution in September 2015 and what emerged from this process were three separate standards.

  • Long Term Evolution (LTE) Cat-M1: informally called CAT-M, is a modified version of LTE, optimised for IoT. It’s garnered much interest from players in North America, such as Verizon.
  • Extended Coverage GSM (EC-GSM-IoT): developed by Ericsson and now being deployed in developing countries, which have good GSM coverage (but little 4G infrastructure).
  • Long Term Evolution (LTE) Cat NB1: informally called NB-IoT and released in June 2016 as part of 3GPP Rel-13.

Key benefits

Let’s focus on the key benefits of NB-IoT, which is likely to become the dominant standard in Europe, as shown in Fig. 1 below, courtesy of u-blox:

  • Screen Shot 2016-08-04 at 15.23.36

    Fig.1 key features of NB-IoT, image by u-blox

    Peak downlink rates of up to 227kb/s and uplink rates of up to 21kb/s.

  • Quality of Service due to use of licensed spectrum
  • Low-power operation and long battery life (10years+)
  • 200kHz bandwidth
  • Low device cost (<$5 a module)
  • Long range and good signal penetration into buildings – an additional +20dB of link budget

This puts NB-IoT firmly in the category of LPWAN technology and may empower Europe’s cellular industry to feel ready to compete with SIGFOX and the rising popularity of LoRa.

NB-IoT modules to market soon

Hardware vendors have already participated in a number of pre-standards trials, so it’s no surprise to learn that they have been quick to announce hardware for standards-based NB-IoT. Established LTE chipmakers u-blox and Altair have both published product specifications and such is the lure of this market that Bluetooth chip vendor Nordic Semiconductor has announced plans for future NB-IoT products.


Fig. 2 u-blox SARA-N200 NB-IoT module, image by u-blox


The stage has been set for the widespread deployment of NB-IoT by cellular operators in the UK and Europe, but many challenges lie ahead such as monetisation, roaming and commercial trials to ease market acceptance.

Bill Harpley, MD and Lead Technologist at Astius Technology, You can follow him on Twitter @billharpley. Don’t forget to follow us too @IoTUKNews.

Does your business work with Low Powered Wide Area Networks? Join Digital Catapult on 16 August for their LoRa Working Lunch.

Bill Harpley
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