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NB-IoT, is the Darling of the GSMA, But Who Wins a Low Power High Stakes War?

By Cynthia S. Artin July 06, 2017

Many of the world's smooth operators participated in the Narrow Band IoT (NB-IoT) lovefest at Mobile World Congress Shanghai, giving us a glimpse into what may be a repeated romance when GSMA comes to the US September 12-14 this year in San Francisco, launching its first ever North American event, partnering with CTIA. 

Vendors were in on the action as well, with dozens of announcements coming out, as well as defenses regarding NB-IoT's lack of interoperability and slow adoption curve relative to the hype going on over the last few years. 

Here are just a few examples of sound bytes coming from the industry just over the last few weeks: 

Swisscom will launch both NB-IoT and LTE-M on its network next year, as it plans 5G trials and upgrades to its 4G network.The two technologies will supplement Swisscom’s existing LoRa-based IoT network. Swisscom also said it will continue to roll out the technology and aims to achieve 90 percent population coverage by the end of this year.

Qualcomm announced a new wearables platform supporting the use of LTE-M and NB-IoT for the first time, the "Snapdragon Wear 1200 platform" supporting15 frequency bands that are used by operators globally, with ocation-based technologies including GPS, GLONASS, Gallileo and BeiDou, as well as Wi-Fi and cellular.

Deutsche Telekom is now offering services on its German NB-IoT network, after compleing the nationwide rollout of an NB-IoT network in the Netherlands.  DT is initially introducing NB-IoT-based smart parking services in Darmstadt, Duisburg, Dortmund, Hamburg, Merzig and Moers.

DT's T-Mobile US subsidiary will launch NB-IoT in 2018 in North America, which we expect to learn more about in September at the next GSMA Event.

Meanwhile, in China, all three major mobile operators have announced nvestments in NB-IoT, according to the GSM Association. China Mobile has reportedly launched services in large urban areas, while China Unicom has formally announced deploymnets in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Fuzhou.China Telecom tops them all, announcing the rollout of a nationwide NB-IoT network.

And, meanwhile, in another world of IoT close up and personal technology camps, the LoRa Alliance announced last week it had reached nearly 500 members after on a few years in existence, with a number of announcements coming out about new LoRaWAN initiatives popping up in countries around the world, including India, Australia and the US. 

NB-IoT is only one of several low-power, wide-area (LPWA) network technologies connecting fixed devices including energy meters, parking meters, water sensors, which need to be deployed for up to ten years without having to "change the battery." More expensive and bandwidth-intensive cellular modalities (LTE-M for example) are competition to NB-IoT, while protocols and standard including Sigfox and LoRa have a clear advantage as they use unlicensed spectrum. 

The well documented grudge match between Huawei Technologes and Ericcson (the largest equipment manufacturers for networking in the world) may have slowed NB-IoT decisions down, however Vodafone recently stepped up to try and quash those concerns as temporary interop issues at worst, and resolved interop soon at best. 

NB-IoT fans enjoy pointing out that inexpensive Sigfox and LoRa products are not secure and lack software for management applications, while the LoRa Alliance dismisses this, pointing out the growth of the ecosystem of technology partners able to secure deployments, via applications, networks, and device configurations, while still keeping "unit costs" at around $2. (NB-IoT module pricing is many times higher). 

Patrick Burg, in one of our favorite Haystack blogs, wrote earlier this month: 

"What seems undeniable is that NB-IoT was a rushed job following an abrupt rethink by the cellular industry on the need for a so-called low-power, wide-area (or LPWA) technology. Two and a half years ago, cellular industry folk at the GSM Association (GSMA) were “dismissive” of LPWA, according to Tom Rebbeck, a director at the Analysys Masonmarket research business. 'Then within a year they had turned around because they saw the momentum behind Sigfox and LoRa,' he says."

While GSMA led initiatives may take time, the fact is they generally, eventually pan out. With this week's rash of announcements on NB-IoT, well orchestrated it seems, across the industry, there is no denying that this particular form of low-power IoT connectivity will have its place at the IoT table, and perhaps the real answer lies in the use cases themselves, and rationalization of network investment bets placed years ago.




Edited by Ken Briodagh

Contributing Writer

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