For many applications in the Internet of Things, traditional mobile technology is not efficient enough. Narrowband IoT is thus being introduced as a standard of the future.
Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) is not just another radio standard; it is intended to solve inevitable problems. 20 billion, 30 billion, 50 billion – consulting and market research firms are constantly surpassing their estimates of how many devices will be interconnected in the Internet of Things by 2020. However, whatever the number turns out to be: it will be too much for the current networks.
Different networks for different use cases
The choice of networks for the Internet of Things (IoT) depends on the respective application. Short transmission paths, such as in a smart home, a supermarket or factory, can be effectively linked with Wi-Fi and LAN or near-field technologies such as Bluetooth, NFC (near-field communication), or RFID (radio frequency identification). Larger distances require the use of mobile technology, particularly for a connection to the cloud and for access via mobile devices such as laptops, tablets and smartphones.
However, this technology will soon reach its limits. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) calculated that the number of mobile lines has surpassed the number of people on earth this year. On the one hand, this means a steadily growing volume of data for networks to handle – and mobile spectrum is scarce and very expensive. On the other hand, it also means an increasing number of subscribers per radio cell. The Internet of Things exacerbates this problem further with its connected wearables, cars and devices. However, a solution is appearing on the horizon: the new radio technology Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT).
Benefits of NB-IoT: mass and reach
In the summer of 2016, the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) standardized NB-IoT. NB-IoT enables the addressing of up to 50,000 subscribers per radio cell, among other things, and was specifically developed for applications in the Internet of Things – smart metering, for instance. One environment where conventional mobile connections reach their limits is gas and water meters in basements; a radio module with deep indoor penetration that needs no external power connection is required here. NB-IoT achieves a 20 decibel higher performance than a GSM connection (Global System for Mobile Communication); the modules can be operated with batteries.
At the same time, NB-IoT has a high reach, making it ideal for tracking containers and goods, monitoring tanks, wind turbines, and livestock in agriculture as well as for connecting street lamps, automated ticketing systems, garbage bins, and parking spaces.
Another asset: low costs
An additional plus are lower costs: many of these applications require small amounts of data with extremely low data rates of less than 100 bit/s or just a few kbit/s, and do not need a permanent connection. In addition, the network can be operated in a spectrum of merely 200 kHz – ensuring that costs for data transmission are very low. Operation of the modules is also extremely cost-efficient: with only small data packages being transmitted in long intervals, an NB-IoT module requires only minimal energy and can operate up to ten years using a commercially available battery – with no maintenance costs. The modules are also very inexpensive to produce. Numerous devices can thereby be connected cost-efficiently and on a large scale.
Alternative LPWA technologies
With low energy consumption and a wide range, NB-IoT is a Low-Power Wide-Area (LPWA) technology that can be technically realized in both GSM and LTE frequencies. 3GPP certified Long-Term Evolution for Machines (LTE-M) as the second LPWA standard; it is an extension of the LTE standard specifically for data transmission in the Internet of Things. LTE-M achieves substantially higher transmission speeds in downlink and uplink than NB-IoT, but also requires much higher bandwidth. Both technologies can thereby complement one another to cover different IoT applications. Extended Coverage (EC-GSM-IoT) was defined as the third standard: mobile providers who do not have a sufficient LTE spectrum for NB-IoT or LTE-M can use their GSM spectrum with EC-GSM-IoT.
Unlicensed vs. licensed spectrum
Other low-power, high-reach technologies include LoRaWAN, Weightless, Sigfox, RPMA, and UNB. Like Bluetooth and WiFi, however, these technologies use the unlicensed frequency spectrum. Benefit: it is openly accessible. Disadvantage: it is not as strictly regulated as the licensed spectrum; different technologies can thus interfere with one another.
Since NB-IoT, LTE-M and EC-GSM-IoT use the licensed spectrum, its quality, security, and data privacy standards are ensured, as with regular mobile technology. Due to the technologies using the existing infrastructure, it is not necessary to set up a completely new network and they can be rolled-out rapidly. Deutsche Telekom, for instance, made its cell towers NB-IoT-capable with a simple software update and put a smart parking system into operation as its first commercial application. Further NB-IoT solutions are planned for 2017.
5G: fast and powerful
IoT applications such as autonomous driving, connected car and remote operations require data to be transmitted almost in real-time. LPWA standards reach their limits in this regard. Latencies of less than one millisecond – with data rates of up to 50 Gbit/s – can only be achieved with the new 5G cellular standard. We will have more information on this in an upcoming article of the Future Networks Perspective.
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