Image courtesy of Monicaodo Thinkstock

(Image courtesy of Monicaodo, Thinkstock).

Narrowband IoT Standard Gets Stamp of Approval

For years, the 3G Partnership Project has faced skepticism about its role within the Internet of Things and how it might approach the difficult task of connecting millions of simple wireless devices. Over the last few years, though, the organization has defied the suggestion that cellular networks are not meant for tiny electronic devices, buckling down on standards that are gentler on the batteries inside sensors and other electronics.

Those efforts are finally bearing fruit, with the organization recently saying that it has finished laying out a new wireless IoT standard. The new technology is known as Narrowband-IoT and joins several others under the umbrella of the 4G LTE specification.

Though it uses the same spectrum and signal processing technology, Narrowband-IoT makes an important change to its underlying cellular standard. NB-IoT is not designed to dive into broadband channels and to enable services like streaming video or sending text messages to smartphones. The broadband channels are wide enough to transmit multiple signals over the same path, whereas NB-IoT exploits narrowband channels that handle fewer signals and very small amounts of data.

With fewer bits streaming into narrowband channels, devices consume less power. On average, a five-watt battery will last 10 years transmitting data according to NB-IoT instructions, though both the number of devices on the network and the coverage area will affect lifespan. The capacity of NB-IoT is about 50,000 devices, according to the 3GPP.

According to the 3GPP, the most significant feature is that existing radios can be configured to support NB-IoT with a simple software upgrade. At least 12 major wireless carriers, equipment makers, and chipmakers—from AT&T and China Mobile to Ericsson and Qualcomm—are already testing NB-IoT.

The industry was only slightly divided over the standard’s operation. Wireless carriers and chipmakers lined up behind two major proposals: the first was called Narrowband LTE and found support among Ericsson, Intel, Nokia, and Verizon. Huawei and China Unicom backed the rival standard, also known as Narrowband Cellular IoT (CIoT).

After the proposals were submitted last September, the 3GPP wasted little time. According to Dino Fiore, the chairman of the 3GPP, it took only nine months to render down the proposals and write NB-IoT into the latest version of LTE, also known as Release 13. The new standard is now “frozen” and only minor changes will be considered, he said.

NB-IoT is not the only cellular standard to be completed this year. The second is called Cat-M1, an evolution of an earlier standard known simply as Cat-1. The standard thinned out its channels and data rate by eschewing support for voice and mobile devices. Sending a single megabit per second over 1.4-MHz channels, Cat-M1 is meant to connect machines, like tiny sensors that monitor everything from industrial equipment to parking spaces in a garage.

NB-IoT emphasizes many of the same qualities. To limit power requirements, both standards allow devices to communicate with cell stations on how often to wake up and listen for signals. Unlike its close relative, it is severely economical, with data rates of 10 kilobits per second over 2o0 kHz narrowband channels. NB-IoT also contains support for mobile applications, such as thermal sensors in a refrigerated truck to monitor frozen fish.

The threat from other low-power networks—including new versions of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, along with proprietary networks from LoRa and Sigfox—will likely result in a prolong battle with NB-IoT. But several analysts think that the new cellular standards will share the airwaves with other networks rather than replace them.

NB-IoT has the benefit of a “high link budget for maximum coverage extension, low cost, and ability to reuse existing LTE networks with carrier grade reliability and security,” said Nick Marshall, an analyst with ABI Research. But it might also be overkill for certain IoT devices with lighter workloads, like electronic tags or sensors embedded in parking garage spaces.

Others predict that NB-IoT will become the dominant force in the Internet of Things. “NB-IoT will crush Sigfox and LoRa because it means there will be no need for them,” Matt Beal, Vodafone’s director of innovation and architecture, said in a recent interview with communications news site Light Reading.

Several chipmakers are already using NB-IoT. In February, Sequans said that it was working on its chipset (called Monarch) for both standards. And earlier this month, uBlox said that it would release the first NB-IoT module toward the end of this year. 

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