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NB-IoT, a Broad Road to the IoT

A consensus has been reached in the industry that the IoT era has arrived. As predicted, there will be 30 billion IoT devices by 2020, and up to 70 billion by 2025. As the IoT ecosystem is gradually formed, the prospects of the IoT are very bright. The total added-value of the IoT will reach $1.8 trillion by 2020, according to estimates in analysis reports. Various applications and solutions designed and developed to cover individuals, industries, and the IoT ecosystem have mushroomed, boosting the rapid expansion of the IoT market. These applications involve multiple fields such as transportation, agriculture, environment observation, industry, and smart home, and are also end-to-end applications including chips, terminals, networks, platforms, and application software. The IoT will be the next development direction of the mobile ecosystem, and also operators’ next main revenue grown point.

During the continuous development of the IoT, some key factors will be taken into special consideration. First, decrease in access equipment cost enables machines, smart water meters, sensors, and even everyday goods and wearable devices to be connected to the IoT. Therefore, the number of device connections in the IoT increases geometrically, resulting in a gradually wider IoT application range. Second, to effectively communicate with the IoT devices buried deep under the ground or inside concrete buildings, new requirements for deep and wide IoT coverage and device battery lifespan are all imposed. Therefore, low power consumption, wide coverage, and low cost become the defining features of IoT technologies. The key elements to implement the IoT with massive connections include a huge amount of device access, deep and wide coverage, low power consumption, low device cost, and rapid deployment. 

NB-IoT Being the Best LPWA Technology

The development of IoT industry gave birth to Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) technologies. Such a technology has the following features: extremely low terminal power consumption, optimized data transmission (non contiguous, small-packet data transmission), extremely low terminal cost, enhanced indoor/outdoor coverage, secure connections and authentication, simple and easy-to-deploy network topology, and easy network capacity expansion. Such a technology is very suitable for IoT applications with long-distance transmission, a small amount of communication data, and long-term operation that requires power supplied by batteries.

At the present stage, there are many LPWA technologies, and new access technologies that meet the above technical features are collectively referred to as LPWA. These new access technologies mainly fall into two types: One is Cellular loT (CIoT) based on the frequency band resources of mobile cellular networks. CIoT includes eMTC and NB-IoT, which are typical 3GPP technologies. The other is dedicated technologies that are developed by some emerging companies, operate on unauthorized spectrums, and include LoRa and Sigfox.

Both LoRa and SigFox are private technologies using unauthorized frequency bands and are easily interference. Therefore, QoS cannot be guaranteed. In comparison with NB-IoT, these two technologies are greatly disadvantaged in terms of system security, anti-interference capability, terminal price, and system capacity. Moreover, to deploy LORa and Sigfox networks, the entire network has to be built from scratch. However, an NB-IoT network can be deployed through existing-network upgrade and evolution. Therefore, NB-IoT has become the choice of mainstream operators.

Both eMTC and NB-IoT are proposed by 3GPP, and future-proof based on the existing mobile network architecture. Each of these two technologies has its own advantages in terms of practicability, actual requirements, and deployment scenarios, and both can evolve to future technologies. The eMTC technology is applicable to scenarios with high throughput and high performance. The NB-IoT technology can provide access for massive low-cost devices and is especially applicable to low-rate or static IoT devices. From the point of technology, NB-IoT has greater capacity, lower cost, better coverage, and more flexible network architecture than eMTC. A study on the GSMA LPUC project shows that in a scenario the requirements of which both eMTC and NB-IoT can meet, NB-IoT is 50 percent more cost-efficient than eMTC in terms of key factors including terminal cost and power consumption. Therefore, NB-IoT is more suitable for most LPWA applications. As predicted, the market share of low-rate and low-latency services with NB-IoT as representative will account for 70 percent in the CIoT market. NB-IoT will serve as a broad road to CIoT. 

ZTE’s NB-IoT Solution and Commercialization Process

With the advantages of wide-coverage, low-power-consumption, low-cost, and massive-connection, NB-IoT has gained the favor of mainstream operators and equipment providers. However, the biggest challenge that the industry faces is that the maturity of the industry chain cannot meet the urgent demand of the current market. ZTE, as the industry’s leading provider that can provide end-to-end solutions covering chips, terminals, wireless networks, core networks, and even service platforms, has been committed to pushing the rapid development of the industry chain. ZTE can provide complete NB-IoT solutions with smooth evolution features, meaning that NB-IoT services can be rapidly deployed based on existing 2G/3G/4G networks of operators through wireless and core network software upgrade, saving both time and investment cost. In addition, ZTE also leads the industry in product function completeness and maturity. For example, 3.75 KHz transmission is supported with better uplink coverage, and both the control plane and user plane are supported with more flexible rate assignment. ZTE’s IoT service platform, based on an open cloud platform, can support massive connections, big-data storage and analysis services and provide smart parking, meter reading, and water quality monitoring services etc.

ZTE has been actively promoting the commercial use of NB-IoT. As early as last May, on the eve of standard release, ZTE worked with China Mobile to carry out the industry’s first 3GPP-based NB-IoT concept test in the laboratory and took the lead in passing the test in August. After that, ZTE quickly signed strategic cooperation agreements with China’s three major operators to carry out large-scale NB-IoT pilot network tests. At the World Internet Conference held last November, ZTE demonstrated smart parking and water quality monitoring services with NB-IoT deployed on a pre-commercial network. So far, ZTE has completed all field tests for China’s three major operators, ahead of any other providers, and helped China Telecom complete the commercial deployment of the world’s first widest-coverage NB-IoT network. Recently, ZTE has won 35% market share with excellent technical strength in China Mobile NB-IoT centralized purchasing bidding.

Cooperation between ZTE and global operators has also blossomed. ZTE has worked with such international operators as South Africa’s MTN, Japan’s Softbank, Belgium’s Telenet, Austria’s Hutchison, Belarus’s Velcom, Thailand’s AIS, Indonesia’s Telkomsel, Malaysia’s DiGi, and India’s Airtel.

Looking ahead to 2020, the NB-IoT technology will be developed and turned into a matured CIoT technology providing ubiquitous coverage, and NB-IoT’s promising future will unlimitedly expand the commercial information communication fields. ZTE will join hands with global industry partners to promote and validate the NB-IoT technology and add impetus to and witness the large-scale commercial use of the NB-IoT technology in the IoT field.

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