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India is fast growing into a strong global IoT hub. By the end of 2016, there were ~200 million ‘connected devices‘ in the country – and this count has been estimated to jump to 2.6 billion units in 2020. In terms of revenue, we are looking at an almost 3X increase over the 2016-2020 period ($5.6 billion vs $15 billion). Globally, the overall size of the IoT market will swell to well over $3 trillion by the end of this decade. LPWAN (low power, wide area networks) standards are driving the growth of IoT across the globe in a big way. According to a recent Infoholic Research report, the worldwide LPWAN market will be growing at a CAGR of >93% between 2016 and 2022. We have already highlighted the importance of Semtech Corporation’s LoRa technology in previous posts here and here. Let us now turn our attentions to another competing, and increasingly popular, technology – Narrowband IoT, or NB-IoT.
There are, at present, around 200 million active NB-IoT connections in the world. Come 2021, the number of connections will shoot up to 685 million (a 242.5% spike). The 2017-2022 CAGR of the global NB-IoT market will be ~62% – going up from $16 million (2017) to $181 million (2022). While Europe and North America are, rather expectedly, the early pace-setters in this domain – the Asia-Pacific has emerged as the biggest contributor to the global NB-IoT market – thanks to the proliferation of smart cities, and the large-scale deployments of optimized IoT solutions. The growth of NB-IoT in India over the past few quarters has been well and truly remarkable too. Reliance Jio, in collaboration with Samsung, is planning to deploy a pan-India cellular IoT network (covering 99% of the nation’s population). Last month, Vodafone reported that it is deliberating on the implementation of NB-IoT solutions in India (following its ‘superIoT’ approach). Over here, we will briefly touch upon some interesting facts and stats about the growth of NB-IoT in India:
What exactly is NB-IoT?
Before getting down to analyzing the technology, it is important to understand the precise nature of narrowband-IoT. Broadly speaking, NB-IoT refers to a new form of LPWAN radio technology, that is typically meant for transferring low data volumes over large networks (NB-IoT powered devices can be used for indoor as well as outdoor use). Alternatively known as LTE-M2, the technology is implemented either through dedicated LTE base stations, or on 200-khZ bands that were not previously in use. NB-IoT was standardized by 3GPP in September 2015 – with the LTE Advanced Pro Release 13 specifying its standards. An optimally functioning NB-IoT setup can deliver a maximum range of 34-35 km (significantly higher than that of LoRa; comparable with GSM), while the downlink data rate varies in the 2 – 170 kbps range. Unlike LoRaWAN and Sigfox, NB-IoT uses licensed LTE frequency spectrums. The highest possible uplink data rate is 250kbps, and the maximum coupling loss is 164 dB (marginally higher than LoRa; similar to Sigfox).
Note: Apart from the ease of bandwidth availability, NB-IoT ensures minimal interferences, excellent battery performance, and general ease of usage. It is, hence, an ideal communication protocol for sending/receiving data over long distances.
Sectors under the NB-IoT focus
Enterprise applications are increasing in importance in India – and smart automation is playing a key role over here (think: Smart Cities Mission, Digital India). Vodafone, which is actively involved in NB-IoT implementations for business/enterprise cases in Europe, has similar plans for the Indian market in the foreseeable future. The telecom giant is eyeing four industry verticals – education, automotive, medical and energy – as the ones with the biggest growth potentials for IoT. In addition, the consumer IoT sub-domain is growing fast too – thanks to the availability and growing awareness about smart home applications, tracking tools, and smart asset management solutions. The prime point of concern in the Indian IoT market is gradually shifting from ‘connectivity’ to ‘security’ – thereby entering a phase of early maturity. NB-IoT promises to be exciting on two counts – it can help individual end-users, as well as automate enterprise applications to take them to the next level.
Note: Since 5G will have significantly lower latency levels and bring up opportunities for AR/VR tools – it will make IoT connectivity in general, and NB-IoT use cases in particular, stronger.
NB-IoT overcomes bandwidth limitations in India
For all the developments of LoRa technology in India, the fact remains that there are restrictions on unlicensed IoT bands in the Indian market. NB-IoT does away with this issue, by using licensed frequency bands (the license fees are low). Availability of NB-IoT modules is hardly a factor – since the technology is making a relatively late entry over here, and multiple MNOs (mobile network operators) are already offering such modules. The onus lies on IoT developers to factor in the bandwidth requirements and the limited mobility of narrowband-IoT, while using the technology to create new applications/tools. Competitive pricing is yet another must-have factor for any new technology to be practically viable – and NB-IoT comes up trumps regarding that. The average per-device monthly cost should be around $0.5 (or even slightly lower, depending upon the precise nature of applications). The growth of NB-IoT in India will also be fueled by the network coverage capabilities of the technology.
Note: The value of the Indian digital economy will touch the $1 trillion mark in 2024. It can safely be stated that the country is well on its way towards becoming a ‘digital superpower’.
The developments at MWC 2018
The Reliance Jio-Samsung partnership is important for the large-scale commercial deployment of NB-IoT in India. At this year’s Mobile World Congress (Feb 26 – Mar 1), several other interesting NB-IoT-related announcements and developments also took place. For starters, France-based Sequans Communication released its first-ever ‘made for NB-IoT’ chip. A new set of 9 radio frequency (RF) chips for LPWANs were showcased by Qorvo. Using Vodafone as the network for its live demo session, Chinese chip vendor company Goodix announced the start of NB-IoT chip sales (the IP will be obtained from CommSolid GmbH). A dual-mode network (LTE-M1/NB-IoT) was presented by Vancouver-based startup Riot Micro. It was also announced at MWC 2018 by China Mobile that chips from 5 companies – ZTE, Huawei, Qualcomm, Mediatek and RDA – have been used to deploy full-fledged NB-IoT networks in as many as 346 cities. According to Qorvo, the global LPWAN market grew by an impressive 20% in 2017 – and by the time 2025 rolls in, it will be the single largest connectivity technology in the globe (with 4 billion+ active IoT devices).
Note: Just as the non-cellular IoT market is being led by LoRa (with Sigfox also having a strong presence), NB-IoT leads the cellular IoT sector.
Successful NB-IoT trial runs in India
Tata Communications has plans to deploy the largest LoRaWAN network in the world in India. The project, spanning 38 cities, will be completed before the end of 2019. NB-IoT networks are also set to become commercially available on a large-scale in India – with Reliance Jio (and Samsung) and Vodafone both eyeing rollouts in the coming months. Vodafone India announced last month that it had already completed multiple smart city test cases in Pune and Kolkata. At present, more use cases from different business sectors – from retail and automobiles, to manufacturing and healthcare – are being researched. On its part, Reliance has already deployed a fully functional NB-IoT network in Mumbai, and the networks in several other cities are being planned. The total number of Jio subscribers is already well over 158 million, ~9000 new towers are being set up every month, and LTE coverage in India is estimated to reach 99% by 2018 Q4.
Note: In North America and Europe, Deutsche Telekom leads the way in terms of NB-IoT network deployments.
Disruptions with NB-IoT
The chief objective of the Reliance Jio-Samsung collaboration is the assurance of faster, interruption-free internet across India. Non-IP data delivery will be something that will set apart the NB-IoT movement in India apart – and this innovation will be backed by a steadily growing user-base. For the deployment, all the installed Jio stations will have to be upgraded (the spectrum finalization will also pave the way for 5G, as and when the technology comes along). According to reports, narrowband-IoT can bring about technical disruptions in various industries – like transportation and logistics, smart metering utilities, weather tracking and vehicle tracking, security & surveillance, and predictive maintenance. In a country like India, NB-IoT is likely to pay a prominent role in smart agriculture/precision farming as well – improving yields and efficiency levels, and lowering uncertainties. As already mentioned above, the technology has the power to revolutionize both enterprise and customer IoT systems.
Note: The IoT scaling opportunities in India are unmatched (according to Qualcomm). In 2016, Qualcomm entered into a partnership with Philips, and another collaboration with CISCO (in Jaipur). The market is growing fast.
Help from Finnish NB-IoT technologies?
In March, Telia became the first Finnish operator to implement NB-IoT technology in its network. In general, Finland is easily one of the global leaders in NB-IoT applications – with Nextfour (in partnership with telecom giant DNA) launching a LTE-M/NB-IoT application in Turku. Not surprisingly, Finnish NB-IoT technologies are being used as a reference point for Indian companies. Late last month, it came to news that a leading telecom service provider in India has expressed interest in the IoT technologies that are being used in Finland – for the optimization and betterment of the Indian IoT sector. Both Reliance Jio and Bharti Airtel have plans to penetrate the IoT and home automation market – with the help of powerful and innovative M2M solutions. Given that the domestic home automation market is set to move beyond $54 billion in 2022, there is ample scope for more players to use NB-IoT to make a difference in this sector.
Note: Reduction in costs, efficiency boosts, better reliability and easy deployment options are some of the main advantages of NB-IoT.
Band selection for NB-IoT
The 865-867 MHz unlicensed spectrum band is used for deploying the LoRaWAN protocol in India. Given the top-notch coverage of NB-IoT, the 900 MHz band (licensed) is generally used by most mobile operators for it (the 700 MHz and 800 MHz bands can be used as well). By 2015, there were already 14 commercial networks operating on the MHz band – where indoor penetration levels are excellent, there is high propagation, and the existing ecosystem is also fairly strong. Interestingly though, 1800 MHz is the frequency band that has the highest percentage of active LTE networks (>76%) in the world. In countries like Australia, Singapore, China and the United Kingdom, the 1800 MHz band is the most popular for LTE networks. The 2.1 G and 2.6 G bands are also used, albeit at a much lower level. Developers need to be aware of the country-specific bandwidth regulations, and abide by the same – while designing with NB-IoT.
Note: NB-IoT cells are typically larger in size than standard MBB cells. The former should ideally be able to accomodate ~100 concurrent connections.
Main features of NB-IoT
The buzz about IoT applications in general, and NB-IoT technology in particular, is rising in India. A lot of factors are serving as the drivers of this 3GPP-standardized technology – right from the 600 bps-250 kbps bidirectional transmissions and the ~10 years battery life (using two AA batteries), to the relatively easy maintenance requirements, the SIM-based security system with ciphering and authentication, and the easy plug-and-play usability (no local networks/gateways required). Compared to GPRS, NB-IoT can deliver a much higher (almost 20 dB) coverage. The fact that NB-Iot works only on licensed bands adds an extra layer of security to the technology. The minimum number of connections in a single NB-IoT cell is 50 – and the real-time data tracking is high on accuracy. What’s more, connectivity and modem costs are minimal – and that, in turn, means that the IoT communication costs with NB-IoT can be significantly lower than that associated with LoRa or 3G modules.
Note: Mass deployment of IoT applications can go a long way in improving public health and safety standards. Users would also be able to save a lot of time and energy by switching over to LPWAN technologies.
10. NB-IoT: A major source of revenue
Investing big on a new communication technology would only make sense if the returns are high enough. NB-IoT is on firm grounds regarding this – with a cumulative revenue of $1.67 billion being projected for the 2016-2021 period. Smart city projects, smart home applications, and automotive and logistics tools are going to be the top-three revenue earners (in that order). Safety & security ($227 million) and smart agriculture ($159 million) are two other sectors that are going to be disrupted by the arrival of NB-IoT, both worldwide and in India. The cost advantage of NB-IoT is also worth a special mention. The average price of a LoRa module and a Sigfox module is $8 and $9 respectively – higher than the average cost of a NB-IoT module ($5). To put things in perspective, a full-featured Cat4 module can cost as much as $30. The tremendous revenue opportunities of NB-IoT, together with the lowly cost figures (only Bluetooth is cheaper) indicate that large-scale deployments can be really profitable for operators.
Note: LPWAN use cases can broadly be classified under 4 different categories – Industry, Appliances, Personal and Public.
11. Is NB-IoT suitable for everything?
As both Reliance Jio and Vodafone have pointed out, narrowband-IoT can be deployed in many different business sectors – and more and more new use cases are coming into the picture. That said, the technology might not be an ideal fit in certain cases. For example, since cellular networks do not generally have strong power-saving mechanisms, they are not particularly great for applications that involve infrequent transfer of very small amounts of data. Utilization of capabilities is yet another factor – since NB-IoT does not require voice technology, or high data transmission rates, or messaging tools, all of which are present in standard 3G/LTE devices. As a result of this, the effective cost of using devices only for NB-IoT goes up. Also, the operability of NB-IoT can become rather suspect in remote locations (in the absence of base stations nearby). In such scenarios, the battery life gets adversely affected as a result of the extra strain on the device transmitter. The good thing is, operators are doing their best to work around these issues – and make sure that NB-IoT standards have uniform usability.
Note: There are three alternative deployment scenarios for NB-IoT – standalone (with new bandwidth), guard band (with reserved bandwidth) and in-band (with same resource in LTE carrier).
12. Understanding the developer mindset
In 2015, there were 4.5 million IoT developers in the world. Cut to 2020, and this figure will cross the 10 million mark – with many Indian players joining the community. The burgeoning popularity of NB-IoT has a lot to do with what these developers actually want from their IoT communication systems. According to a M2M Barometer Survey report, ‘2-way communication’ (55%) and ‘low cost’ (43%) are the two most sought-after features in any IoT technology, followed by ‘extended geographic coverage’ (40%) and ‘long battery life’ (34%). Now, NB-IoT satisfies all of these requirements and many more – and that makes it easier for developers to adopt it and deploy it in their LPWAN systems. By the end of 2024, 6 out of every 10 IoT devices will be powered by NB-IoT – emphasizing the importance of the technology in the long-run.
Note: In January, Telstra became the first Australian carrier to deploy NB-IoT in its network. Incidentally, Telstra also provides Cat M1 IoT coverage (started in 2017).
Apart from the endeavors of Reliance Jio and Vodafone, Huawei is also deliberating with leading Indian telecom players for commercial IoT deployment. There are potential interoperability issues between Huawei and Ericsson (which can affect the rollout of NB-IoT globally). However, the successful ‘interoperability tests’ done by Vodafone reduce such concerns somewhat.
Under the ‘Smart Cities Mission’ of the present government, 100 smart cities will be developed in India. In a truly ‘smart city’, narrowband-IoT can be utilized for a lot of purposes – like smart water metering, air-quality monitoring, smart parking, damage prediction, sheep tracking (in farming), and smart waste management. All of these (and much more) are already being done in different countries. With LoRa and NB-IoT both set to become mainstream in India – the country can easily rank among the global LPWAN leaders in the not-too-distant future.