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Vodafone to Miss NB-IoT Launch Targets

Iain Morris

Vodafone's launch of commercial NB-IoT services has been delayed in at least two of the four markets previously identified for an early 2017 rollout.

The UK-based operator told Light Reading that its subsidiaries in Ireland and the Netherlands are now anticipating commercial launches of NB-IoT in the summer, after promising last October to introduce commercial services in those markets, as well as Germany and Spain, by the end of March 2017.

Asked to explain the delays, Vodafone suggested that customers in Ireland and the Netherlands were not yet "ready" for NB-IoT services.

"The launch of NB-IoT in each market is as much about when our customers are ready as when the network is available," said a spokesperson for the operator in emailed comments. "The different commercial launch timings are therefore down to the separate Vodafone operating companies deciding what is the best schedule for their local market."

While Vodafone has previously flagged the availability of commercial services in Spain, the delays in Ireland and the Netherlands also raise doubts about the status of Vodafone's launch plans in Germany, the biggest of the four European markets in which it is rolling out an NB-IoT network. They might even have ramifications for the overall NB-IoT strategy: In October, Vodafone said its initial rollouts would be followed by service launches in "other markets during the rest of the year with full coverage of Vodafone's global network in 2020."

Vodafone has not provided an update on the Germany deployment and omitted to mention the country when responding to Light Reading's questions.

"NB-IoT networks are currently being successfully trialed in both the Netherlands and Ireland and they are anticipating full commercial launches in the summer of 2017," said the operator's spokesperson. "In Spain, NB-IoT is commercially available in six cities with new ones being added every few weeks."

Vodafone's earlier field trials of NB-IoT appear to have focused heavily on Spain and in January the operator announced that it had switched on commercial NB-IoT services using spectrum it owns in the 800MHz band. That commercial network now appears to be available in the cities of Barcelona, Bilbao, Madrid, Malaga, Seville and Valencia. (See Vodafone Kicks Off NB-IoT Fiesta in Spain.)

Vodafone's comments about Ireland and the Netherlands seem to hint at a lack of immediate demand for the services that NB-IoT can support, and yet internationally several operators claim to have made investments in Sigfox and LoRa, two rival technologies, to meet pressing customer needs. Germany's Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT), meanwhile, says that a number of customers are "lined up" to use NB-IoT technology in the Netherlands, where it is also deploying a network.

In any case, the delays to the introduction of commercial NB-IoT services could prove damaging given the growing momentum behind Sigfox and LoRa.

All three technologies are designed to provide data connectivity for the Internet of Things (IoT), and particularly for devices like smart meters that transmit very small amounts of bandwidth on a regular basis.

Based on unlicensed spectrum, Sigfox and LoRa can already boast a substantial head start over NB-IoT, which was included in the 3GPP's Release 13 standards update as recently as last summer. France's Sigfox also claims to have a cost base and a price competitiveness that operators using NB-IoT will struggle to match. (See Sigfox Said to Face Customer Backlash.)

Vodafone has previously been dismissive of both Sigfox and LoRa, arguing that NB-IoT -- with its industry backing and licensed-spectrum attractions -- will "crush" those technologies as it is deployed. (See Vodafone to 'Crush' LoRa, Sigfox With NB-IoT.)

Executives at the mobile operator have drawn attention to the ease of deploying NB-IoT for companies that already maintain software-upgradeable cellular networks. During a press briefing at its UK facilities last April, Vodafone estimated that at least 80% of its own base stations would be able to support NB-IoT following a software upgrade, rather than the more onerous installation of new hardware.

Want to know more about the Internet of Things? Check out our dedicated IoT content channel here on Light Reading.

The backers of LoRa have insisted, however, that an NB-IoT software upgrade is just as costly as building a LoRa network from scratch.

Moreover, a number of high-profile mobile operators have now included either LoRa or Sigfox in their IoT plans.

Those include Telefónica of Spain, which struck a "global deal" with Sigfox last month, telling Light Reading that Sigfox was the "only option" for services requiring nationwide deployment today. (See Sigfox 'Only Option' Today, Says Telefónica.)

Meanwhile, operators including France's Orange (NYSE: FTE), KPN Telecom NV (NYSE: KPN) of the Netherlands and South Korea's SK Telecom (Nasdaq: SKM) have been drawn to LoRa, similarly arguing that it has helped them to meet demand for IoT connectivity in the absence of a 3GPP alternative. (See SK Telecom Sees LTE-M, LoRa as Its 'Two Main IoT Pillars' and LoRa May Not Be for Long Haul at Orange.)

Perhaps an even bigger concern for Vodafone is that its NB-IoT deployment now appears to have fallen some way behind that of European mobile rival Deutsche Telekom, which in the last few weeks looks to have stolen the NB-IoT crown.

In late February, the German operator said it would extend NB-IoT coverage in a range of European markets where it had already deployed the technology, including Austria, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. It also promised to complete a "nationwide implementation" in the Netherlands this year and to introduce services in Germany between April and June. (See Eurobites: DT Makes Big NB-IoT Push.)

Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone are clearly going head to head on NB-IoT in Germany and the Netherlands and any delays to Vodafone's launch of commercial services could present Deutsche Telekom with a short-term business opportunity, assuming the German incumbent's rollout plans do not encounter similar delays.

— Iain Morris, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, News Editor, Light Reading

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