HUAWEI GLOBAL MOBILE BROADBAND FORUM, TOKYO: NB-IoT network deployments will pick up speed at the end of next year, with players across the value chain confident that modules and handsets will be available as the overall low power wide area (LPWA) ecosystem picks up speed.
This was the consensus among operators and vendors at the Mobile IoT Summit, which was part of Huawei’s MBB Forum last week and featured three panel discussions on mobile IoT technologies, use cases and market readiness.
Jean-Christophe Laneri, Ericsson’s head of network solutions for north east Asia, said 2017 will be the year of mass rollouts of NB-IoT networks, and it will take a couple of years to ramp up the value.
According to Huawei CMO Peter Zhou, the infrastructure is ready and is starting to be deployed in some markets with leading operators. Chipsets also are ready for trial and will be supplied to manufacturers in volumes in Q3 next year.
Siegfried Chang, MediaTek’s senior manager of IoT marketing, said between 2017 and 2018 the infrastructure and devices will be ready, “so there is no reason for people not to move to NB-IoT”.
He called Release 13 a milestone. “The problem has been coverage, but Release 13 opens that up. There’s still work to be done, but it’s a good start offering a trusted network to run IoT services.”
Brian Cho, Nokia’s head of technology for Asia Pacific and Japan, noted that standardisation is vital because it will make the market bigger as economies of scale will improve.
Asked about the lifespan of NB-IoT networks, with some verticals looking for a technology that will be around for decades, Cho said he would bet on the sustainability of the 3GPP ecosystem because of the longevity of GSM technologies.
Huawei’s Zhou agreed, adding that service providers want consistency. “3GPP has a reliable history – NB-IoT grew from existing networks smoothly and the same will happen with 5G.”
NB-IoT is one of three official cellular technologies that aim to enable low power wide area IoT services (the other two being LTE-M and EC-GSM-IoT). They are competing with more established, but non-cellular, technologies operating in unlicensed spectrum, such as Sigfox and LoRa.
One of the operators leading the charge is Vodafone, which has announced plans to launch NB-IoT in all markets where it offers 4G services and will begin next quarter with rollouts in Germany, Ireland, the Netherland and Spain.
Luke Ibbetson (pictured below), director of R&D at Vodafone Group, said: “We’re about to go live with this. We’ve tested the technology to death. We know it works extremely well, and we’re seeing it will be launched by a diverse range of operators for a diverse range of use cases in 2017.”
It is starting with smart metering but will move quickly into smart city applications. While handset availability has been a concern, he said he is confident it has the suppliers lined up to put modules and devices into the hands of customers. “We are no longer concerned about the volumes and availability of chipsets and modules.”
China Mobile, the world’s largest mobile operator, is also aggressively moving forward with cellular IoT, with small-scale field trials scheduled to kick off in four major cities this quarter and next.
Xiao Shanpeng (pictured left), deputy head of wireless and terminal technology at China Mobile Research Institute, said the trials are designed to verify the key promises of LTE and test the end-to-end networking capabilities. The trials will be expanded to larger-scale tests in Q2 in 16 cities, with 100 base stations per city.
Xiao said IoT has great potential in China, noting that there is pent-up demand since current networks can’t satisfy many of the requirements because of high power, poor coverage, insufficient cell capacity, high costs, low reliability and poor security.
IoT connections in China are expected to jump to 50 billon over the next five years, as growth in connections to people slows, he said.
NTT Docomo’s IoT connections increased 2.4 times over the last three years and are forecast to expand by another two to three times by 2020, said Naoki Tani, the operator’s MD of M2M business department.
Ibbetson, who is chair of the NB-IoT Forum, said NB-IoT has made tremendous progress since the forum was set up. “We successfully completed the 3GPP standards for NB-IoT in record time in June, we have multiple pilots underway and the beginnings of a vibrant ecosystem.”
The forum now has 30 global operator as members and they represent 2.9 billion mobile subscribers and serve more than 90 per cent of the current IoT market.
He explained that if you look at the requirements for 5G in terms of low power, extended range, low data rates and ability to scale to connect billions of devices, “that actually matches the performance characteristics of NB-IoT very nicely. We’re not going to replicate that capability with 5G – we will use as part of our 5G plans”.
This is a view shared by multiple operators, he said. “This is here to stay and a key part of our future roadmap.”
NB-IoT has a market potential of at least $7 billion by 2022, Ibbetsson said. “It’s not about creating a new technology, it’s about creating a new way of generating business.”
LTE accounts for only 5 per cent of IoT volumes, or about half a billion connections, but is now the fastest growing mobile segment – much faster than smartphones, Ericsson’s Laneri said. The Swedish vendor is forecasting 18 billion IoT devices in 2018.