opinion


Will NB-IoT disrupt the LPWA market?

Telecoms.com periodically invites opinion from third party experts on subjects addressing the most important areas of today’s industry. In this post, Avinash Joshi Competency Head, Technology, Network Services Tech Mahindra looks at the prospects for NB-IoT in the nascent IoT network market.

Competition in the Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) space, to support the growth of the Internet of Things, is heating up.  In the last few years, several niche industry-specific and technology-specific solutions, have been developed using unlicensed spectrum. However, with these siloed solutions, there are interoperability challenges and these have been further compounded by security issues.

In August 2015, 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project) announced the launch of a new standard in 2016: Narrow Band IoT (NB-IOT) which is expected to overcome some of the challenges faced by the industry. Here we explore what this new technology offers and its likely impact this fast changing market.

LPWA and the fragmented market

IOT devices have some specific communication requirements: they are typically distributed over a large area, require very low power energy sources and transmit a small amount of data (around 1 kb) for a short duration, at very low frequency, typically once a day.

Whilst IoT is on the roadmap of 5G, these IoT transmission requirements are the polar opposite of current mobile 3G/4G networks, which are designed for managing high speed data throughput, low latency and high power transmission.

As a result, nearly 12 known niche technologies including LoRa, SIGFOX and Weightless have appeared in the market.  They all are vying for the large market share. In this increasingly fragmented market, Operators face a number of challenges with LPWA requirements:

  • There is considerable growth in the IoT market predicted over the coming decade. Operators are realising that ignoring this or delaying may result in a marginalised business.
  • The nature of high frequency wave propagation with 3G/4G makes them unsuitable for reaching devices below the ground and results in poor indoor coverage.
  • Already SIGFOX, LoRa and Weightless alliances have developed technologies in the sub GHz license free spectrum. They have a lot of industry support and are aiming to standardise their technologies.
  • Existing solutions for M2M communication are based on GSM /GPRS spectrum and technologies. Not only are the devices based on them costly; in the long run they are not suitable due to spectral efficiency. Already, many operators are refarming this spectrum paving the way for VoLTE. Given this, it is increasingly difficult to compete with the current LPWA solution providers.
  • The cost of the LTE based IoT devices is still high. These are typically in the range of 25 USD to 30 USD today while the cost of existing LPWA based devices is around 10 USD.

Emergence of NB-IOT

During a meeting of the 3GPP Radio Access Network in September 2015, a decision was taken to standardise NB-IOT, a narrowband radio technology to specifically address the LPWA requirements.  This gave an indication of the seriousness and urgency of the 3GPP in pursuing the IoT market.

NB-IoT makes use of the licensed spectrum; it can provide secure, reliable and guaranteed QoS to applications such as connected cars, healthcare, security alarms or the fire service. As it’s a 3GPP standard, network interoperability and roaming support is also assured. It also eliminates the need for a gateway. In the current LPWA network architecture, a gateway performs data aggregation from various sensors and sends it to the datacentre after preprocessing. In the absence of a gateway sensor data is sent to a datacentre directly.  NB-IOT can also work with the operator’s existing infrastructure which reduces the deployment cost.

As such, the competition in LPWA space is heating up.  In the first week of Jan 2016, the Wi-Fi alliance also entered the race. It announced the IEEE 802.11ah based HaLow standard that operates in 900 MHz band and low power. HaLow devices will also operate in the existing 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz ISM bands.  Further, HaLow also aims to target Smart Home, Smart City, and industrial markets.

The emergence of NB-IOT will be biggest challenge to all of them. This threat is likely to unite non-mobile technology and solution providers.  However, given the proprietary nature of each of the solutions and the market fragmentation, the odds seem to favour NB-IOT.

What the future holds

Given so many technologies, the ground is set for an exciting finish and the following likely outcomes:

  1. NB-IOT will dominate the market marginalising the others

GSM technology has 85% of the market share in the mobile communication space. As a result, it is natural to expect that most GSMA members will adopt NB-IOT. Until then, some operators are likely to engage vendors in the pre-standardised solutions or Proof of Concept.

2. One of the Unlicensed LPWA technologies such as LoRa, Weightless or SIGFOX is standardised and will co-exist with NB-IOT & HaLow

In some cases, the use of unlicensed spectrum-based technology solutions may still be suitable due to non-stringent business requirements such as response time, reliability and cost economics. For example in:

  • Agriculture – land / forest monitoring
  • Logistics – refillable tanks & bottles
  • Smart Buildings – in building network using short range radio such as smoke detectors, pets etc.
  • Smart Cities – parking, waste bins, street light monitoring
  1. Current LPWA technologies gain traction and NB-IOT fails to pick up

This is unlikely, due to the strong backing of the GSM players.

Due to diversity of the use cases of IoT, there is no ‘one size fits all’ radio access that is sufficient to address all requirements – and harmonisation will take a few years.  SIGFOX and LoRa and others have a lead time advantage of a couple of years over NB-IOT and HaLow.  Nevertheless, NB-IOT poses a serious challenge to non-cellular LPWA technology and solutions. We can expect an exciting tussle over the next two to three years in this increasingly dynamic space.

 

Avinash Joshi - Tech Mahindra2Avinash Joshi has a Ph.D from  IIT (The Indian Institute of Technology) Bombay. He has over 22 years of experience in the Telecommunications industry with focus on innovation in wireless broadband technologies.  He works with Tech Mahindra as a Competency Head, Technology in Network Services Business Unit and leads the team in the initiatives for new business growth areas and design thinking. He was a member of the Special Task Force (STF 360) on QoS at Network Interfaces at European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI). He was also a founder member and formerly Head Technology solutions, CanvasM Technologies. He is a Senior Member of the IEEE. 

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