How will Vodafone’s NB-IoT network affect IoT device manufacturers?
How will Vodafone's NB-IoT network affect device manufacturers?
How will Vodafone's NB-IoT network affect device manufacturers?

How will Vodafone’s NB-IoT network affect IoT device manufacturers?

Following a successful trial of NB-IoT on a live network, Vodafone has completed the commercial launch of this standard in Spain.

The company’s Narrowband Internet of Things (NB-IoT) technology was developed and rolled out in less than seven months following the creation of the standard in June 2016 by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP).

It is currently operational in Valencia and Madrid, supporting the connectivity of low power IoT devices, and Vodafone claims it will extend the coverage to Barcelona, Bilbao, Malaga and Seville by March 2017 as part of a nationwide-roll out.

Supposedly, this will create over 1,000 mobile sites supporting NB-IoT in Spain, each connecting more than 100,000 devices.

The firm also plans to roll out an Narrowband IoT service in Dublin, Ireland this month.

Related: NB-IoT could be dead in the water, claims IoT analyst

Spain’s NB-IoT network

Vodafone has well and truly nailed its colors to the NB-IoT mast and Spain, it says, is set to reap the rewards.

“Our Spanish NB-IoT network was deployed within existing 800 MHz spectrum. That is the optimal use of Vodafone Spain’s 4G spectrum and will maximise the signal strength and coverage,” the company said in a statement.

Vodafone also claims that the network will increase signal coverage by 20 decibels (dB) compared to existing cellular technology in Spain.

This will allow Vodafone’s customers to connect devices used deep indoors or underground, such as gas meters, water meters, and parking monitors.

As Vodafone is using licensed spectrum, it should also provide the same levels of security as 4G, and will not be subject to the same potential disruptions of alternative technologies using unlicensed spectrum, such as LoRa.

To launch the network, Vodafone said it simply updated software in three existing base stations, which took just a few hours in Valencia.

Related: NB-IoT on a live network? Completed it, says Vodafone

Should IoT device manufacturers care?

While the speed at which Vodafone has completed the launch is impressive, questions remain about to what extent manufacturers should care yet.

Interestingly, Tom Rebbeck an analyst at Analysys Mason, pointed out that it’s not exactly clear what commercial means in this instance.

“Is it just live on a commercial network or is Vodafone in a position to sell access to customers? Does it have any paying customers yet? I’m not sure if this is what we’d really call a commercial launch or another step closer to having commercial service. We are probably 12-18 months away from having a full, normal commercial service,” he told Internet of Business.

In regards to the technology itself, Nick Hunn, CTO at wireless connectivity consultancy WiFore, has written that “In its current form, NB-IoT is dead” because we do not have “a single low cost, globally interoperable standard” for the technology.

Currently there are “two industry groupings with radically different approaches [to NB-IoT],” Hunn said.

Nokia and Ericsson have partnered to produce a solution that, Hunn says, is a “cut down, lower power variant of 4G.” This solution is capable of working with other 4G devices in the same spectrum, so it can be slotted into existing networks but is more complex, meaning it’s more expensive for manufacturers.

Vodafone and Huawei have developed a solution that does not work alongside 4G networks and therefore only needs a small amount of spectrum.

The problem is that the two approaches are not compatible and “a user or manufacturer has absolutely no idea of whether an NB-IoT product they make will work on any particular network,” Hunn said.

It’s a point with which Rebbeck agrees, though he questions the extent of its impact by application.

“The impact not having interoperable systems depends on the application – for water meters it is not a major concern,” he said “The meter will connect to the same network for 10 years or more. For a consumer electronics firm that wants to ship connected devices globally it is likely to be a big issue. The consumer electronics firm will want a solution that works anywhere – right now, no wide area solution can offer that. Overall, the lack of interoperability will slow take up.”

The long game

With LoRa networks popping up in many major cities across the U.S., United Kingdom, Singapore and recently Australia, it seems Hunn may be right that most manufacturers will choose a different LPWAN infrastructure to NB-IoT in the coming years while the 3GPP develops a global standard.

Hunn suggests that such a standard is easy to draw up and, once complete, “most manufacturers will probably migrate to it”, rendering NB-IoT the dominant connectivity standard for IoT.

This is, he says, still some way off, and in the meantime “The irony is that we now have a set of different LPWAN options which look as if they do support a ten year battery life, but it’s unlikely that any of them will still be operating in ten years’ time. In other words, battery life now exceeds network life.”

“There is little good news for an equipment manufacturer, who is faced with the prospect that whatever connectivity solution they choose today, it will probably disappear within the next ten years. In other words, their product obsolescence is in the hands of their choice of network operator.”

Don’t confuse headline with reality

In spite of the need for a final standard, Nick Hunn told IoB that “it’s great to hear this is happening.”

“We’re in a really difficult position for the IoT, as it’s not obvious which of the cellular or LPWAN standards will win out, and the only way we’ll find out is for people to get out and do it,” he said.

Hunn acknowledged that he does have a lot of time for Vodafone and what the company is doing, but “the headline shouldn’t be confused with reality.”