The path to IoT is wider with narrowband

The path to IoT is wider with narrowband

Feature articles |
By Rich Pell

Of course, there is no shortage of work taking place within standards bodies such as the 3GPP as they try to figure out the best way to service the anticipated explosion in demand. And maybe unusually – at a time when businesses demand, figuratively speaking, ever wider bandwidth for data – one of the technologies being considered to fill that IoT gap is narrowband radio. 

One factor at play here is that respected firms like Machina Research also estimate that 11 per cent of these IoT connections, around 3 billion devices, will need the type of Low-Power, Wide-Area Networks (LPWAN) that are ideal for narrowband communications. With that in mind, the attraction of the technology and the level of interest in Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) becomes clearer. 

But that is not the whole story. Because in truth, the interest in NB-IoT goes much further than the suitability of the air interface. In fact, narrowband has a range of deployment options, device advantages, and long-term security benefits that other competing technology approaches, particularly the use of unlicensed spectrum, just cannot match.

The first version of the NB-IoT standard was published in June last year, as part of Release 13 of the global 3GPP standard. At the same time, the 3GPP also released a pure LTE-based solution for IoT termed LTE-M. 

But it’s my view that there are some significant advantages to NB-IoT that will make it a better solution for the efficient use of the spectrum and of other network resources. In particular, NB-IoT is very well placed to deliver on some of the key requirements of an efficient IoT – namely device battery-life and cost, radio coverage, and network support.

NB-IoT could enable sub-$5 devices with ten-year plus battery life, could cope with devices being situated in remote rural or basement locations, and could support as many as 50,000 devices from a single cell tower.  But even that’s not the full story behind the interest in NB-IoT.   

Although NB-IoT is integrated into the LTE standard, it can be considered as a new air interface and therefore – on the face of it – not fully backward compatible with legacy networks.  However, the genius of its design is that it can happily co-exist with GSM, GPRS and LTE technologies without interference and with excellent side-by-side performance.

In fact, there are three main deployment options for NB-IoT within GSM and LTE networks.

GSM is still the dominant mobile technology within many markets, and the significant majority of M2M applications today use GPRS or EDGE for connectivity.  Simply by switching a single GSM carrier to handle NB-IoT traffic, operators can ensure a smooth transition to LTE and massive Machine-type Communication (MTC). This deployment approach will accelerate IoT time to market, maximize the benefit of existing infrastructure and future-proof IoT investment.

Alternatively, in LTE networks, NB-IoT can be deployed ‘in-band’ to provide a highly spectrum-efficient and cost-effective deployment. This in-band option sets NB-IoT apart from any other competing LPWAN technology.  

The in-band deployment sees NB-IoT as a self-contained element that uses a single physical resource block (PRB) within the network. Furthermore, the NB-IoT carrier can be switched to other network uses if there is no IoT traffic. This capability means the network can intelligently multiplex IoT and LTE traffic on the same spectrum to minimize the total cost of the operation and scale with the volume of MTC traffic.

Finally, NB-IoT can also be deployed, with no interference, in the Guard Band of LTE or WCDMA networks. Unlike other LPWAN technologies, NB-IoT has been designed with the requirements of LTE guard-band coexistence specifically taken into consideration.

There’s no doubt, that NB-IoT has a lot going for it as technology.  It can enable the low-power, low-cost devices that will be required for IoT network efficiency, and it uses licensed spectrum where capacity, performance, and availability targets can be managed and met. 

But it is the wide range of deployment options, and the ability of NB-IoT to exist happily alongside and within past, current and future networks, that will be the features which will make it so attractive to operators all over the world.

About the author:
Kashif Hussain is Director of Marketing at Viavi Solutions –

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