Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) is a Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) radio technology standard developed by 3GPP to enable a wide range of cellular devices and services. According to Markets and Markets research, market size is expected to grow from USD 320.5 Million in 2017 to USD 8,221.3 Million by 2022, at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 91.3% during the forecast period.
Many IoT device manufacturers are currently looking closely at Cellular Narrowband technologies such as NB-IoT and Cat M1 which promise significantly lower energy consumption. With the substantial increase of battery life to more than 10 years, many no-touch IoT applications become viable at an affordable cost. Although Cellular Narrowband has been heavily promoted during 2017 and 2018 by many operators, we have yet to see widespread adoption. In this article, we outline 7 reasons why device manufacturers are still not taking advantage of NB-IoT.
1. Global footprint of Cellular Narrowband
Cellular Narrowband is still not globally deployed. As of mid-September 2018, only 66 networks in 34 countries have deployed either of the technologies. While NB-IoT has a footprint of 50 networks in 31 countries, LTE Cat M1 is only available in 16 networks within 13 countries. Many large economies like Great Britain, India, France, Russia, and Indonesia do not yet have any Narrowband technology infrastructure. A comprehensive list of countries where Narrowband is commercially deployed can be found on GSMA.com.
It becomes clear on reading GSMA’s list that the global footprint for Narrowband is effectively insufficient for IoT device manufacturers that want to provision low-cost devices globally.
2. Coverage area restricted to locations where LTE is already present
NB-IoT and LTE Cat M1 are deployed on LTE towers. While Cat M1 solely uses existing LTE frequencies restricted to 1.4 Mhz Bandwidth, NB-IoT can be deployed either on stand-alone frequencies, LTE guard bands, or LTE in-band. GSMA states that all three deployments are supported, with guard-band and in-band deployments being more cost-efficient.
The problem is that NB-IoT and Cat M1 have not been deployed in all LTE markets by operators yet and LTE coverage alone is still not omnipresent. Low-cost Narrowband NB-IOT modules usually fall back to Cat M1 (or vice versa) in case the other technology is not available. To make sure that their service is consistently available, device manufacturers often need to rely on more expensive chips that support legacy technologies such as GSM, UMTS, and LTE. This impacts not only their business model due to higher costs but also the predictability of the devices’ battery life.
3. No NB-IoT and Cat M1 roaming available
There is no available NB-IoT and Cat M1 roaming on offer from any commercial operator as of today. In June 2018, the first European NB-IoT roaming trial between Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom took place. The only commercial NB-IoT roaming that has been officially planned is between 3 HK and Far East tone with no launch date yet announced. What does that mean for IoT device manufactures within verticals such as transport, logistics, and cargo tracking – all of which have provided a substantial business case for cellular IoT? As it stands, they simply cannot use NB-IoT as a viable alternative.
4. No single choice for connectivity providers
Due to non-existent Narrowband roaming, IoT device manufacturers face a tough decision. For embedded SIMs, they need to select which Service Provider supplies the connectivity. This means that contract negotiations and agreements need to be made on a country-by-country basis and, additionally, shipping SIMs with different service profiles based on the destination country. Logistics and automated billing becoming increasingly complex in cases where manufacturers receive invoices from multiple clients worldwide. The alternative of using GSM, UMTS and LTE technologies with global SIMs available through a single billing channel streamlines this entire process.
5. No redundancy coverage per country
There are only a limited number of countries where more than one operator offers Narrowband services. Relying on Narrowband means that the device manufacturer is directly dependent on the coverage and availability of the operator. With multi-IMSI SIM alternatives, legacy access technologies such as GSM, UMTS, and LTE can provide a more reliable network than Narrowband.
6. No seamless mobility
NB-IoT, as it is deployed today, does not support seamless mobility and handover. In LTE, Cat M1 handover is supported by the 3GPP specification, but not configured in all live networks due to power-saving reasons. This limits the addressable market of Narrowband technologies to non-real time, stationary applications.
7.Limited support for SMS over Narrowband
The networks on which cellular narrowband is deployed, do not always support SMS services over NB-IOT or CAT-M1. Several operators have yet not deployed the SMS functionality for Narrowband. Whereas SMS seems old-fashioned, there are still several use cases for SMS in the IoT domain. MT SMS can be delivered with a delay when the devices are not online, and MO SMS can be sent only through signaling channels even under poor radio conditions. Further Over The Air (OTA) updates of SIM profiles, e.g., adding new IMSIs or changing the SIM traffic steering on multi-IMSI applets are done through SMS.
Narrowband is an up-and-coming technology that provides energy and cost advantages over other access technologies. Operators worldwide have seen the advantages and the business case, but Narrowband offerings are only appealing to IoT solution providers that are only targeting a few large markets (e.g., US). Inadequate coverage and nonexistent roaming agreements leave IoT device manufacturers with the burden of making a significant commitment to specific connectivity provider per country. Nevertheless, we believe that with the ongoing deployment of Narrowband functionality on more networks, new roaming agreements as well as improved seamless mobility, Narrowband will become a viable choice for more use cases.
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Picture source: GSMA