Narrowband IoT is poised for rapid development

February 24, 2017 // By EDN Europe
Simon Glassman, Senior Principal Strategic Partnerships at u-blox
In the telecoms arena, the final mile to consumers’ homes and businesses has always represented the most challenging aspect of operations. It’s the last leg in the network, the part that connects into individual premises. It’s also necessarily the most expensive to service, given that it connects the greatest number of users to the network.

While it may be relatively cost-effective to run expensive fibre along the ‘backbone’ of the network, thereby providing an efficient, high speed service, it becomes much more expensive to use the same mechanism to connect in those individual users. The problems are more easily overcome in urban areas, where ingenious alternative mechanisms may be employed to provide similar levels of service to the end user.

Over the last decade, the emphasis has moved from telecoms to the provision of high quality data connection to the consumer. Public Wi-Fi is increasingly available in cities, giving instant access to the Internet and a variety of other information-based services.

IoT developments

And still the demand and requirement for data connection marches on; now it’s being driven by the Internet of Things (IoT). Billions of devices are forecast to need Internet connection, albeit not necessarily to transmit high volumes of data. For the main part their requirement will be very much more low key and low demand. Many of these devices only need to connect intermittently and to transmit low volumes of data: wireless utility meters and smart waste management for instance.

These are not the type of applications for which the modern network is or has been optimised. Typically, wireless applications operate over a range of 30 meters. The range is likely to be adversely affected by an increase in numbers of devices or applications using the available bandwidth. Given the very low power requirements of many of the IoT devices competing for service, Wi-Fi becomes increasingly less useful and attractive for this type of applications.

Development of an alternative technology to cater for the different requirements is obviously needed. The standards development partnership, 3GPP (3 rd Generation Partnership Project) is made up of seven standards development organizations concerned with the development of cellular telecommunications network technologies from 3 rd generation service offerings towards the planned LTE (Long Term Evolution) for high speed wireless communication. Its work also focuses on making technological developments both backwards and forwards compatible with existing service offerings.

Low end standard

3GPP last year agreed a standard for Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT). The standard is optimized for devices at the low end of the market, operating at a bandwidth of just 180kHz. This low bandwidth helps to make devices hugely efficient in terms of their power consumption and drain. They can be battery-operated and batteries only need changing infrequently – up to ten years has been cited – making devices easier to maintain as well as increasing their likely reliability. Potential applications for devices in the narrowband spectrum are utility meters (gas, electricity, water) which are required to send back readings infrequently, for instance on a quarterly basis.

Another advantage of the narrowband specification is that it enables devices to operate over a much wider range than conventional WiFi devices. Readings can be sent back over distances of up to 30km. They can also be transmitted through walls and floors or even from devices situated underground.

Putting the technology to the test

Small wonder that utilities across the globe are excited by