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.)
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.
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."
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.
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