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April 26, 2017
Interoperability problems between Ericsson and Huawei are hindering the rollout of NB-IoT services, according to a number of industry figures and experts.
Such problems could hand an advantage to rival technologies targeting demand for low-power, wide-area (LPWA) connectivity and leave NB-IoT playing a smaller role than was originally envisaged.
NB-IoT was included in the Release 13 standards update from the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) specifications group last summer but has subsequently limped into the commercial Internet of Things (IoT) market, despite earlier predictions that it would quickly sweep aside its rivals. (See Vodafone to 'Crush' LoRa, Sigfox With NB-IoT.)
Figure 1: Crushing Developments Matt Beal, Vodafone's director of innovation and architecture, last year predicted that NB-IoT would make mincemeat of Sigfox and LoRa.
Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD), one of its biggest supporters, has missed NB-IoT launch targets in some of its European markets. Several other operators that might have been expected to take immediate advantage of NB-IoT have made no significant commitments to it and are currently promoting other technologies such as Sigfox, LoRa and LTE-M. Those players include France's Orange (NYSE: FTE), KPN Telecom NV (NYSE: KPN) of the Netherlands, Spain's Telefónica and South Korea's SK Telecom (Nasdaq: SKM). (See Vodafone to Miss NB-IoT Launch Targets, Eurobites: Orange Bangs the Drum for LTE-M, Sigfox 'Only Option' Today, Says Telefónica and LoRa May Not Be for Long Haul at Orange.)
According to several executives in the IoT market, one of the problems with NB-IoT is that equipment from China's Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. is incompatible with gear from Sweden's Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC), which effectively means there is more than one "version" of NB-IoT.
"Some companies oversold NB-IoT and now the operators realize it is not that easy a deployment," said Gabor Pop, a solutions marketing manager with Actility, an IoT software company, during an LPWA conference in Paris in March. "The software upgrades are quite expensive, there is still no ecosystem, there is still a Huawei implementation that is not the same as an Ericsson one -- it seems they are not interoperable." (See The NB-IoT Train Is Delayed.)
Actility supports a range of LPWA technologies, including LoRa, LTE-M and NB-IoT, but Pop reckons the concerns about NB-IoT have convinced some operators to deploy LoRa "and wait a couple of years for NB-IoT."
John Horn, the CEO of IoT specialist Ingenu, echoed Pop's remarks about interoperability problems between Ericsson and Huawei during a recent interview with Light Reading. (See Ingenu Seeks Funding to Support Growth.)
"Rollouts announced in… different countries [will] end up being… different technologies," he said.
Ingenu has developed a rival LPWA technology called RPMA (for random phase multiple access), which gives Horn a vested interest in knocking NB-IoT. (See Ingenu Revs Up IoT Rhetoric.)
But his criticisms demand to be taken seriously given his industry standing -- he was previously the president of managed services player RacoWireless, sold to rival KORE Wireless Group Inc. in 2014, and before that spent nine years as a director at T-Mobile US Inc. -- as well as the doubts from other quarters.
Horn blames the emergence of different versions of NB-IoT on an intellectual property (IP) dispute between Ericsson and Huawei and says the two vendors "are still battling over IP in the standard."
Want to know more about the Internet of Things? Check out our dedicated IoT content channel here on Light Reading.
He is not the only one who says that Ericsson and Huawei have clashed on the IP that underpins NB-IoT.
Last year, a spokesperson for the LoRa Alliance -- an association set up to promote LoRa technology over alternatives including NB-IoT -- said the standardization of NB-IoT was held up by the IP fight between Ericsson and Huawei.
Asked to comment on the remarks about interoperability, and if there is any problem with the current standard, a spokesperson for the 3GPP said in an emailed response: "We cannot comment on implementations, as we simply do not have the facts to hand and we would assume that there are various aspects to consider, in addition to the 3GPP specifications."
"I am sure that if this is related to issues with the specifications, this will be fed back to 3GPP groups as technical contributions," the spokesperson added.
Next page: Vendors in denial
Vendors in denial
Ericsson dismissed suggestions it is locked in an IP dispute with Huawei over NB-IoT, as well as talk of standards bifurcation. It also blamed ongoing standardization activities for the chatter about interoperability problems.
Eric Parsons, Ericsson's head of 4G and RAN mobile broadband at its business area networks division, says the 3GPP made some "corrections" to the NB-IoT standard as recently as March.
"It is very atypical of the 3GPP to introduce late-stage scenarios that lead to incompatibility," he tells Light Reading. "There might be a period where the whole ecosystem is catching up with this last round of changes in the specifications. That is perhaps the seed for what you might have heard regarding compatibility."
During a subsequent email exchange with Ericsson, Parsons said the use of the word "atypical" was "probably incorrect."
"A required non-backward-compatible change was introduced, but it was with the understanding that this was ahead of any widespread technology rollout and therefore quite OK," he said. "Of course, test activities have to be aligned as to which 3GPP release to use in this circumstance."
The 3GPP did not respond to requests for a comment on these "late-stage" changes to the NB-IoT standard.
Parsons also said in Ericsson's email that he had "no knowledge of any long-standing interoperability issue."
"We have been conducting tests in customer labs now for quite some time without any such issue emerging," he said. "Otherwise we are not aware of any issues and our customers have not raised any issues."
Huawei indicated that it was not aware of any interoperability problems with Ericsson while declining to comment on the recent changes to the NB-IoT standard.
Want to know more about 4G LTE? Check out our dedicated 4G LTE content channel here on Light Reading.
But Nick Hunn, the chief technology officer of consulting firm WiFore, has argued that interoperability problems are deep-rooted.
In a blog published in December, Hunn said the telecom industry has split into two camps on NB-IoT, with Ericsson and Nokia pursuing an approach that remains "incompatible" with that taken by Huawei and Vodafone.
According to Hunn, the approach taken by Ericsson and Nokia "is essentially a cut down, lower power variant of 4G." That taken by Huawei, he says, is more of a "clean sheet" approach that owes much to the Weightless standard developed by Neul, a UK firm that Huawei acquired in 2014. (See Huawei Spends $25M on Neul's IoT Smarts.)
Hunn describes the 3GPP's efforts to resolve differences between these approaches in its specifications as a "fudge."
"Vodafone is using Huawei's NB-IoT, which is totally different from the Nokia NB-IoT which [Finnish operator] Sonera is using," he writes. "To survive, NB-IoT needs to be a single, low cost, globally interoperable standard. In its current form, NB-IoT is dead."
Next page: LTE-M looms
In the short term, any incompatibility between Ericsson and Huawei equipment seems unlikely to have much impact in the US market: There, the biggest operators have been steered away from Huawei by authorities that insist the Chinese vendor poses a threat to national security.
Elsewhere, though, any concerns about NB-IoT interoperability might conceivably persuade telcos to look to alternative technologies for their LPWA needs.
"When you've got a mixed estate and base stations from different vendors you want devices to work across all of them," says Tom Rebbeck, a research director with the Analysys Mason consulting and market-research group. "Until the interoperability issue is fixed [using NB-IoT] is going to be difficult when you have a mixture of equipment vendors in your network."
Even so, while Rebbeck believes incompatibility is currently a problem, he does not think it represents a huge threat to NB-IoT and says it is likely to be overcome this year.
He also points out that in most of the "use cases" piloted so far the devices have been stationary. "If the devices are not going to move it doesn't really matter if it only works on Huawei's equipment," he says.
The rush to develop a cellular response to LPWA technologies like Sigfox and LoRa -- which were born outside the GSM industry -- could explain why interoperability remains a problem following initial standardization and why the 3GPP is making late-stage changes, says Rebbeck.
"It can take years to make a standard and with NB-IoT it happened in a year to 18 months," he says. "This is possibly an inevitable consequence of that."
Having nailed its colors firmly to the NB-IoT mast, Vodafone declined to comment on the interoperability issue.
The UK-based operator was last month revealed by Light Reading to have missed NB-IoT launch targets in Ireland and the Netherlands. Asked to explain those delays, it appeared to blame customers' lack of readiness for NB-IoT services.
Want to know more about cloud services? Check out our dedicated cloud services content channel here on Light Reading.
Interoperability is unlikely to be a factor, according to Rebbeck, because Vodafone appears to be working exclusively with Huawei in both countries.
Germany's Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT), which claims to have launched NB-IoT across a number of its European markets, also looks to be collaborating with Huawei but not Ericsson on the rollout of the technology. (See DT Claims World First on NB-IoT.)
France's Orange, however, is basing its LPWA strategy on the use of both LoRa and another 3GPP standard called LTE-M -- an approach that operators including KPN of the Netherlands and South Korea's SK Telecom are also pursuing.
The recent rise of LTE-M poses a much bigger existential threat to NB-IoT than any interoperability problems, as far as Rebbeck is concerned. (See Verizon Takes IoT Network Nationwide.)
"A year ago we thought there was more momentum behind NB-IoT and that LTE-M was just going to be used in North America," he says. "Now you've got Orange, KPN and SK Telecom using LTE-M and there is talk that China Mobile could as well."
Given the LTE-M momentum in the US, where both AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) are rolling out the technology, any major commitment to the standard by an Asian giant like China Mobile Ltd. (NYSE: CHL) would "make the case harder for NB-IoT" as a globally preferred standard, says Rebbeck.
Although LTE-M modules are a bit more expensive than NB-IoT ones, LTE-M is also capable of supporting higher-speed connections, giving operators more service options, explains Rebbeck.
— Iain Morris, , News Editor, Light Reading
International Editor, Light Reading
Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).
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