The low-power, wide-area networking (LP-WAN) market is beginning to take form, with technologies such as LoRa, Sigfox, and LTE Cat-NB1 (formerly NarrowBand-IoT (NB-IoT)) looking to fill the void left by sunsetting 2G networks that connected a variety of Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) devices. While this sector promises to be a significant contributor to the number of overall IoT connections in coming years thanks to the comparatively low cost of the enabling network technologies, exactly which of these will emerge as viable large-scale solutions remains to be seen. In this interview with Andrew Morawski, Head of IoT (Internet of Things) Americas at Vodafone, he explains the LP-WAN landscape is being viewed from a carrier perspective
How is the LP-WAN market shaking out given the competition that is starting to emerge there?
MORAWSKI: Recently IDC put out a number that the connected IoT product market is going to be something like $2.2 trillion by 2020, and Gartner has estimated 20.8 billion connections by 2020. We’re only probably around 7 billion connections in the market today, so that’s a monstrous jump, even with machines being connected.
This low-power, wide-area segment where Cat-NB1 plays is really the tail that’s going to wag the dog. The next huge segment of growth in the marketplace is going to be about the connected everything, but currently there really isn’t a cost-effective way today to connect everything.
You’ve got the likes of Sigfox and LoRa that have stepped onto the scene, but from our perspective as a carrier who’s got mobile networks all around the world, Cat-NB1 would be the answer to that question of, “How do we connect all these low-level devices in a cost-effective way?” Cat-NB1 uses existing LTE spectrum; it’s secure, with guaranteed delivery and throughput as opposed to using public spectrum; and it allows us to support 200,000 devices per cell.
From that perspective, and the fact that it is using unused or low-band spectrum from LTE, about 85 percent of our network is already equipped to provide NB-IoT. It’s simply a software upgrade. So for us, It was really a simple choice between the three of those, as Cat-NB1 allows us to offer secure connectivity for low-end devices in a cost-effective range with the technology that will allow for long battery life that you need – anywhere from a 13-and-a-half to 15 year battery life. On top of everything, there is low latency associated with the technology because you’ve got a guaranteed throughput using licensed spectrum. It’s also got intense extended coverage into areas like parking garages, indoors, basements, etc. Tie all that into being a simple upgrade for us, it was a bit of a no-brainer for us compared to doing a LoRa deployment or partnering with someone like Sigfox.
Cat-NB1 got a late start in standardization compared to other technologies in the LP-WAN space. How far are we out from seeing LTE Cat-NB1 chipsets on the market?
MORAWSKI: The standard was developed between the GSMA and the NB-IoT forum, and there were 26 different operators involved and 15 to 16 global technology companies, so it was a well thought out standard from a network security and device and platform level. What that many people being involved in the development of it means is that there’s immediately a large group of supporters who are going to enable that ecosystem and are going to drive the chipset makers.
We actually completed our first trial of Cat-NB1 on a commercial network last fall in Madrid. We used a live 4G-base station that supported an Cat-NB1 solution end-to-end. We’re not deploying commercially yet, but we’re right around the corner. We’ll be going into end customer commercial availability over the course of the next year and plan to have ubiquitous offerings by 2020.
Until then, where can developers learn more about LTE Cat-NB1?
MORAWSKI: We established the NB-IoT Open IoT Lab in the UK with fellow members from the GSMA NB-IoT Forum to advance the development of the ecosystem and help bring solutions to market. We’ve got all kinds of customers coming in to play with the technology. It’s run by our technology group and has been a fantastic way for customers to validate their Cat-NB1 solutions or meet with ecosystem partners to develop end solutions that utilize NB-IoT. It was the first NB-IoT lab, and probably still the only NB-IoT lab, that’s been set up.