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What is NB-IoT? Practical tips to unlock its business potential

Understanding massive IoT (Internet of Things) cellular technologies such as Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) will help your organization to deploy a high volume of low complexity, connected devices intended to transmit small data packages. Learn more about how the technology works, the ecosystem, what experts say about NB-IoT and consider some practical deployment tips that can help optimize the business potential.

Pedestrians next to a parking meter
Christian Kuhlins  

Strategic Product Manager RAN Massive IoT Segment

Marcus Törnqvist 

Strategic Product Manager, Massive IoT

Category, topic & hashtags
Category
IoT
Topic
Hashtags
#NB-IoT

How can you prepare and mobilize your organization for massive IoT (Internet of Things) by using cellular technologies? 

Massive IoT cellular technologies such as Narrowband Internet of Things (NB-IoT) or Cat-M1 (LTE Category M1 for machine type communication) are taking off. These technologies are used to deploy a very high volume of low complexity, connected devices intended to transmit small data packages now and then. Let’s take a deep dive into NB-IoT. 

Focus on NB-IoT

NB-IoT is a radio access technology standardized by 3GPP for cellular wireless communication. It is especially suited for a high volume of low-complexity devices in challenging radio environments such as deep building or underground radio signal penetration. 

NB-IoT enables very low complex devices at a very low cost with long battery life (>10 years), deployed in massive numbers (~50.000 connections cell) and with an extended geographical cell range (up to 40 km or even up to 100 km which is a special Ericsson standard compliant solution). Use cases such as fleet management or logistics, asset management or smart metering, demand very low data usage in the networks.

Understanding the NB-IoT Ecosystem

For NB-IoT, a variety of chipsets and modules are available (pre-integrated chip-sets for easy integration into whatever device). Devices targeted to specific use cases such as water, electricity, parking, streetlights or agriculture are typical. Modules are embedded with a processor chipset, memory, additional radio and other functionality such as a positioning module like GPS.  
 
Identifying and understanding the ecosystem of all the affected players is just as important as it ranges from operators, device vendors to field technicians. Everyone has a role to play in the end-to-end setup of use cases.  

  • The chipset vendors offer a variety of configurations, i.e. in terms of local or international radio frequencies used by Communications Service Providers (CSPs). 
  • Modem vendors combine these with additional application processors, memory, antenna technologies etc. and interface to match different needs. 
  • CSPs often provide a variety of different access technologies to match the capability needs of use cases in an optimized way. 
  • Core networks and cloud-based platforms contribute with functionality to optimize commissioning of devices, administrate and supervise devices in operation.
  • Service Providers help to certify devices for CSPs and support both CSPs and Verticals to find optimized solutions for each use case. 

Tapping into NB-IoT experts

At IoT Day in Stockholm, we hosted a successful breakout session focused on NB-IoT deployment with a mix of enterprises and CSPs in the audience. NB-IoT experts from chipmaker Qualcomm, smart metering company Landis + Gyr and CSP China Telecom shared their insights on the practical aspects of deploying NB-IoT.

The panelists agreed that one of the dominating areas and drivers for NB-IoT are smart metering and there is also some up-take in some geographies for parking, building management and controlling smart city lights.

China is considered to have the largest NB-IoT footprint where smart city features such as air quality monitoring and building management have been obvious uptake areas. Developing NB-IoT services by providing metering as a service rather than selling the actual hardware is considered a big market opportunity. When connecting things that have not yet been connected, like a refrigerator, a pump or a lawnmower, a traditional one-time transactional type of business is enabled to be a lifelong business relationship.

The experts concluded that the IoT market remains fragmented. There is a need for easy integration of different types of devices and a single platform for device management is crucial for enterprises. More pre-integration to speed up deployment of NB-IoT is crucial.  

Three practical NB-IoT deployment tips 

If you are preparing your NB-IoT plan, consider your starting point. Are you an enterprise that already has connected things/devices? An enterprise that does not have a legacy of connecting things?  An innovator bringing a new solution to the market? These handy tips are worth considering: 

  1. Remove barriers by developing End-to-End IoT labs: Allow device manufacturers to work with application suppliers in a telecom network on how to best deploy, operate and maintain the devices with the right performance. Standardized test cases could be supplied, access to experts for troubleshooting could be possible etc.
  2. Shift your thinking: Changing the mindset of key actors to embrace collaboration and share knowledge will enable new business opportunities and market growth to increase uptake. Still, opportunities need to be validated to enable businesses beyond many proofs of concepts and pilots.
  3. Prove the business case: To disrupt existing industries and markets with IoT, the key is to prove the business case. The uptake of NB-IoT and Cat-M1 in smart metering shows that cellular point-to-point connected smart meter solutions are superior to power line communication (PLC) or non-licensed radio frequency solutions.  

Understanding the business opportunity

Massive IoT access technologies are already deployed in today’s commercial cellular networks globally, and this segment is growing in terms of the ecosystem and numbers of connections. ​According to Ericsson’s 2019 Mobility Report, the number of cellular IoT connections will grow from 1 billion devices in 2018 to 4.1 billion by 2024, increasing with a compound annual growth rate of 27%. NB-IoT and Cat-M1 will make up 45% of those connections. With this growth rate, the opportunity is huge for a business with a command of the ecosystem and who can provide more than NB-IoT hardware, rather, complete services.

Learn more about the differences between NB-IoT vs. Cat-M1

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