Why was NB-IoT worth waiting for?

The number of IoT applications is rocketing. For example, the production systems of factories are constantly being updated with new features that utilise the new possibilities offered by IoT.

At the same time, many are considering their options regarding the best wireless technology with which to connect the IoT devices and sensors to the network. Wireless technologies can be roughly categorised into two different groups: technologies using unlicensed frequencies and those using licensed frequencies. Proprietary technologies operate on unlicensed frequencies, while licensed frequencies, i.e. frequencies requiring a licence, are used by non-proprietary technologies.

The first IoT technologies on the market operated on unlicensed frequencies and have originally been developed by a single company. These Low-Power Wide-Area Network (LPWAN) solutions include, for example, Sigfox ja LoRa. Unlicensed frequencies enabled fast market entry in a closed ecosystem.

However, the future of these IoT technologies is uncertain, and many predict their fate will be similar to that of WiMax. WiMax was on the market well before the 4G technologies (DC-HSPA and LTE), and, ten years ago, it was promoted as the future technology for wireless broadband. Today, 4G has replaced WiMax entirely.

Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) is one of the evolution paths of 4G network technologies. The participants in the development of this 3GPP-standardised LPWAN technology include some of the largest telecommunications companies in the world, such as Nokia, Ericsson, Huawei and Intel. The related standard was not finalised until in summer 2016.

However, good things are worth the wait, for example, for the following reasons:

Decreasing price promises growth

IoT technologies using unlicensed frequencies can be seen to have several weaknesses: the technology is controlled by just one company, and there is a limited number of component manufacturers as well as substantial variation in the networks’ coverage and business models.

Non-proprietary technologies with global support, however, enable unparalleled economies of scale. This nearly always guarantees that the technology is priced reasonably and the trend is downward. This applies to both the price of the IoT terminal devices and sensors and the operator’s network investments and network maintenance costs.

NB-IoT can be deployed with an update to the 4G network that covers the entire Finland. Because NB-IoT is an open standard, its coverage will expand quickly, and a large number of device manufacturers, modems and sensors will emerge on the market. This will increase competition and volumes while decreasing prices, and the result will be a positive loop of growth.

High-quality connection

4G networks have been designed to fulfil mobile data connection needs even inside buildings. NB-IoT utilises the same base station network, supplemented with the new coverage functionalities of the standard. Now and in the future, this ensures unparalleled network coverage in challenging environments as opposed to networks using unlicensed frequencies.

Technologies requiring the use of licensed frequencies enable operators to control which services operate on which frequencies and, for this reason, the operator can guarantee the high quality of IoT connections. In addition, devices with higher transmitting power can be used for licensed frequencies, enabling good connections to even extremely challenging sites.

Energy savings, easier maintenance and improved data security

Compared to traditional mobile technology, NB-IoT offers several significant benefits, with energy efficiency being among the most important ones. The connection is in idle state when not in use, which extends battery life significantly. This is also supported by the chosen components that are optimised for this purpose. For this reason, battery life is extended to even ten years in many cases. This saves energy, but above all it saves effort related to the exchanging of batteries.

In NB-IoT, information security has been taken into account already in the technology development phase.

The technology also enables over-the-air (OTA) software updates. For example, with the development of Tesla, the automotive industry has come to realise how valuable this is. Major recalls costing tens of millions could have often been avoided in the past if diagnostics and software updates for cars could have been carried out remotely, as is the case with Tesla.

The advantages of NB-IoT are so significant that they have inspired, for example, Ericsson to estimate that the number of devices connected to networks will increase to 30 billion in five years. This means that new business models will start to flow to the markets at a fast pace. Here you can find more information on Finland’s first commercial NB-IoT solution that was implemented for Kesko by DNA, Ericsson, UnSeen and Enermix, the company providing the Talotohtori service.