Vodafone is hoping to pile some pressure onto its Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity rivals by trumpeting plans to launch services based on the NB-IoT standard as soon as next year.
NB-IoT is basically the cellular community's answer to the IoT phenomenon of low-power, wide-area network (LPWAN) technologies. Like rivals in that space, NB-IoT has been designed to support connections over longer distances and at lower cost than existing cellular standards. That makes it highly suited to scenarios where numerous devices are each transmitting small amounts of bandwidth and likely to be in service for many years.
But while NB-IoT works its way through the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) 's standardization process, players outside the cellular industry have been developing LPWAN technologies that use unlicensed airwaves and are already being deployed. Those players include US-based Ingenu , France-headquartered Sigfox and Californian chipmaker Semtech Corp. (Nasdaq: SMTC), whose LoRa technology has drawn support from mobile operators such as France's Orange (NYSE: FTE) and South Korea's SK Telecom (Nasdaq: SKM).
All these LPWAN players have been trying to make headway while NB-IoT is still in the laboratory and may be troubled by suggestions it could materialize commercially in 2017. Indeed, while acknowledging the challenge posed by NB-IoT, Landon Garner, Ingenu's chief marketing officer, recently told Light Reading the NB-IoT platform would probably not be "serviceable" for at least two years. (See Ingenu Revs Up IoT Rhetoric.)
Earlier this year, there were even suggestions the NB-IoT standard might not get included in the 3GPP's Release 13 this month, as intended, but instead slip to a future Release 14.
Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD) was quick to dismiss any such possibility during the opening of an NB-IoT lab at its Berkshire headquarters in late April and said "the full 3GPP standard [is] to be released imminently" in a statement published earlier today. "Preparations [are] underway for a full commercial launch in 2017," wrote Luke Ibbetson, the director of research and development for Vodafone, as well as the current chair of the NB-IoT Forum, in a Vodafone blog.
Heavy Reading senior analysts Steve Bell and Gabriel Brown agree that Vodafone's NB-IoT leadership should give a boost to the technology in the increasingly busy LPWAN market.
"The plan is aggressive and not without some challenges," said Bell. "However… it is the type of leadership necessary for accelerated traction in the face of increasing LPWAN competition."
Unsurprisingly, Vodafone has been extremely bullish in its recent statements about NB-IoT, even arguing it will sound the death knell for rival technologies. "NB-IoT will crush LoRa and Sigfox because it means there will be no need for them," said Matt Beal, Vodafone's director of innovation and architecture, in a conversation with Light Reading in April. (See Vodafone to 'Crush' LoRa, Sigfox With NB-IoT.)
Nevertheless, the early arrival of NB-IoT does seem like bad news for proprietary LPWAN technologies based on unlicensed spectrum, which continues to provoke concern about congestion and interference. Proprietary has fast become a dirty word in the telecom industry, as operators try to avoid being "locked in" to one source of supply. And while Sigfox and LoRa backers insist their technologies are open, the intellectual property is ultimately controlled by a single party in each instance.
If Ingenu, LoRa and Sigfox can build enough support before NB-IoT arrives, they may prove hard to dislodge. But Vodafone's latest announcement suggests time is running short, and none appears to have so far generated overwhelming support. Sigfox claims to be rolling out networks in 18 countries and to have about 7 million connections, but its revenues last year reportedly came in at just €5 million ($5.7 million). Ingenu boasts partners in 53 countries but has had little to say about the commercial application of its technology. (See The Wolf at Sigfox's Door.)
While LoRa, meanwhile, does appear to have won the support of several big cellular operators, some are clearly hedging their bets. Orange, which is building a LoRa network in France, has suggested it will eventually replace everything with 3GPP standards. An executive at SK Telecom, which is rolling out LoRa even though it is an investor in Sigfox, has said the "jury is still out" on a whole variety of LPWAN technologies, including Sigfox, LoRa and several LTE-based standards. (See LoRa May Not Be for Long Haul at Orange and SK Telecom, Telkom Indonesia Unite on IoT.)
In the case of NB-IoT, much is riding on Vodafone's activities, according to Bell. "The importance of the pre-commercial trial will be the lessons in terms of how the RAN and the rest of the network will have to be optimized to use this new technology, work with different data types and deliver new service offerings, as well as how it interoperates with existing operations," he says.
Vodafone has been carrying out trials of pre-standard NB-IoT in Turkey and Spain, where it is using the technology to connect sensors in car parks. In Spain, it has also teamed up with water company Aguas de Valencia on a smart meter initiative.
Based on remarks made by Ibbetson at the LPWA 2016 conference in Amsterdam this week, Bell reckons Vodafone will launch its first commercial NB-IoT service in Spain. He also expects NB-IoT chipsets to become available in September and reckons Altair Semiconductor will be the first company to start shipping them.
How quickly Vodafone can get an NB-IoT network up and running obviously remains to be seen, but Ibbetson believes that about 85% of the operator's basestations will be able to support NB-IoT with a straightforward software upgrade. That figure rises to 95% in some markets, such as the Netherlands.
"We've already started the process of upgrading our core and radio network and we expect to launch services across Vodafone markets during 2017," said Ibbetson in his blog. "While there is still work to do, we believe it could be one of the fastest rollouts of new technology that we've ever completed."
— Iain Morris, , News Editor, Light Reading