The inaugural Global NB-IoT Forum summit at Mobile World Congress highlighted technology advances, but there’s more work needed on building the ecosystem.

“There are no major barriers to the success of NB-IoT,” proclaimed Graham Trickey, the GSMA’s head of connected living, at the start of the first global summit of the GSMA NB-IoT Forum. “I think we have everything in place for this to emerge as a viable solution.”

Trickey may well have had in mind the summit’s impressive line-up of supplier speakers when he made his upbeat remarks. The world’s three largest infrastructure players in the world were represented – Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia – with each throwing their considerable weight behind Narrowband Internet of Things standardisation. Speakers from giant US chip companies, Intel and Qualcomm, were also on the podium.

“NB-IoT allows applications to be supported that wouldn’t be possible with the existing GSMA network,” added Trickey. “It provides low cost, low battery power, and wide coverage for sensors that are often placed in awkward positions.”

It was only in September 2015 that 3GPP, a standards body, agreed a common NB-IoT approach for deployment of Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) networks using licensed operator spectrum. The process of NB-IoT standardiastion is now expected to be finalised sometime between March and June this year, and incorporated into LTE Release 13.

Quan Yu, chief strategy officer of Huawei’s wireless product Line, said he expected to have a commercially available NB-IoT system – end-to-end – in the second half of 2016. And because a global and cellular-based standard offers a more secure, reliable, and universal alternative to non-standardised technologies, Quan Yu added that past (and downbeat) predictions about cellular’s role in IoT would need to be revised upwards.

He referenced a forecast made in 2014 that only 10% of IoT connections would be carried by cellular in ten years’ time. “Cellular networks have advantages, and if we can find a cost effective solution it will be very successful,” said Quan Yu. “Perhaps cellular will account for 50% or 60% of IoT connections in the future.” He reckoned that NB-ToT could decrease total cost of ownership by up to 10% compared with non-standard and non-cellular LPWA solutions.

“The whole industry has come together and made some hard choices, and now has a standard near completion in record time,” added Eric Parsons, Ericsson’s head of mobile broadband. “Perhaps deployment can be in record time too.”

“Technology is well on track,” agreed Ulrich Dropmann, head of standardization at Nokia, although he added that there were perhaps bigger challenges on the device side than the radio part.

U-blox’s head of strategic partnerships, Simon Glassman, nonetheless flagged a real-life example of pre-NBT-IOT standardized solutions delivering on its promise through the module makers’ partnership with Huawei. Vodafone Spain and Huawei integrated the technology onto the operator’s mobile network and then sent the first pre-standard NB-IoT message – to a u-blox module in a water meter. “We proved NB-IoT coverage gains of 20dB when compared with GSM networks,” asserted Glassman.

Improving the link budget by 20db, using small amounts of bandwidth, was a key consideration for Durga Malladi, VP of engineering of Qualcomm. The US chip company worked with Huawei in developing that capability in their Cellular IOT technology, which now feeds into the 3GPP standardization process.

“The technology itself is not that much of a challenge,” Malladi added, “but rather the challenges lie in the implementation of the technology.” He referred to the likes of metering devices, which need to run on very lower power in deep sleep mode, and to keep power consumption down when it intermittently connects with the network. Although the NB-IOT Forum aims for battery life of up to ten years, Qu Wuan said Huawei had done lab tests showing devices could have a life-span of up to 20 years.

Another way to bring TCO costs down, said Quan Yu, was to enable operators to “maximize their installed macro base stations” through software upgrades to support NB-IoT sensors. Huawei demonstrated that capability on Deutsche Telekom’s (DT) commercial mobile network in Bonn, Germany, using its SingleRAN multimode base station equipment. At the time, in October 2015, DT said the Bonn implementation was the first commercial network in Europe equipped to communicate with sensors. Software upgrades also have the advantage of quickening speed to market, something which all the supplier speakers agreed was important.

Build an ecosystem and they will come
Luke Ibbetson, head of R&D at Vodafone Group – and Chair of the NB-IoT Forum – agreed that the technology had developed “terrifically”, but stressed there were now wider issues to address. “We need to make sure we have the complete end-to-end system, and that we have the right models for engagement so this technology becomes relevant outside the telco industry,” he said. “It should be relevant to everybody building every type of connected device.”

Ibbetson explained that the Forum put potential users at its centre – such as solution providers, vertical industries, consumers and enterprises – which, in turn, are then supported by developer communities, module and chipset manufacturers, as well as mobile network operators.

Luigi Licciardi, head of standards at Telecom Italia, agreed for the need to engage more with potential customers. “We need to create an eco-system and develop applications for different environments and verticals,” he said.

Licciardi, along with Angel Barrio, VP of IoT and M2M at Etisalat Group, enthused about the wide range of markets that operators could address with NB-IoT – from the connected car, smart homes and wearables, to smart energy, smart cities and tourism. And because IoT involves the management of data, argued Licciardi, it added to the business case appeal. He cited statistics of 6 billion IoT connections in Europe and a €1 trillion revenue pie – split among various players, not just mobile operators – by 2020.

Madam Huang Yuhong, deputy general manager of China Mobile Research Institute, was equally effusive about NB-IoT expansion, suggesting 10 billion connections and RMB 1 trillion revenue by 2020. However, despite supplier insistence that standardisation was moving swiftly, she still thought it needed to speed up, and urged that the “chipset and the module to be highly integrated with very low cost, small size and low power consumption”. To eliminate barriers for service development, she added there should be an open and unified interface for the sensors, and also the same for applications.

Huawei’s Quan Yu strongly backed the Forum’s work in engaging with operators, vendors, developers and customers in driving NB-IoT adoption. Just prior to Mobile World Congress, Huawei and Vodafone agreed to establish the world’s first NB-IoT (Narrowband Internet of Things) Open Lab aimed at developing the NB-IoT ecosystem.

“We’ve worked a lot with our partners to push the NB-IoT ecosystem,” he said. “Developing use cases is critically important for NB-IoT success, and the Open Labs helps us do that by working with different verticals.”