When it comes to providing connectivity for the billions of devices that will make up the future "Internet of Things," security is deemed an essential requirement. But the purveyors of NB-IoT seem far from secure about the outlook for the much-ballyhooed connectivity technology.
Concealed by an outward display of braggadocio, their worry is that NB-IoT will miss out on a lot of business and end up with a smaller share of the market than expected. Last year, Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD), one of the technology's chief backers, argued that NB-IoT would "crush" its technology rivals when it emerged this year. Yet the alternatives continue to attract supporters amid reports that NB-IoT has missed rollout targets, remains far too expensive for customers and is beset by interoperability problems. (See Vodafone to 'Crush' LoRa, Sigfox With NB-IoT, Vodafone to Miss NB-IoT Launch Targets NB-IoT? Not at Those Prices, Say DT Customers and Ericsson, Huawei incompatibility threatens NB-IoT – sources.)
The industry's reactions to those reports are what betray the insecurity. Talk of interoperability problems between equipment vendors Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) and Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. is now rife at industry events. Numerous industry experts have also flagged the issue in discussions with Light Reading. Yet Ericsson and Huawei have pleaded ignorance, while operators have either denied there are problems or declined to comment.
The timing of one recent statement on interoperability also looks odd. Vodafone this week said it was carrying out NB-IoT interoperability tests more than two months after it was supposed to have launched commercial services in some European markets, and having never previously acknowledged that interoperability is a concern. Those tests have shown that all is tickety-boo, it insists.
Even if interoperability is not a serious issue, perceptions to the contrary could prove damaging. But trying to explain how those views have taken shape might necessitate some embarrassing disclosures about NB-IoT's history. Instead, the people behind the technology have largely clammed up. "I can't get anybody to talk to me about it," says Syed Hosain, the founder and chief technology officer of IoT operator Aeris Communications Inc.
What seems undeniable is that NB-IoT was a rushed job following an abrupt rethink by the cellular industry on the need for a so-called low-power, wide-area (or LPWA) technology. Two and a half years ago, cellular industry folk at the GSM Association (GSMA) were "dismissive" of LPWA, according to Tom Rebbeck, a director at the Analysys Mason market research business. "Then within a year they had turned around because they saw the momentum behind Sigfox and LoRa," he says.
Indeed, in the absence of a suitable cellular technology, several Tier 1 operators have made commitments to the technologies that Rebbeck cites. Based on unlicensed spectrum, both Sigfox and LoRa have put the cellular industry under considerable pressure to bring NB-IoT to market as quickly as possible. "That there are interoperability problems is not surprising," says Bengt Nordström, the CEO of the Northstream market research and consulting group. (See SK Telecom Sees LTE-M, LoRa as Its 'Two Main IoT Pillars', Orange Hails LoRa Breakthrough as Bouygues Ups IoT Game and Sigfox 'Only Option' Today, Says Telefónica.)
Whether or not the rush to standardize NB-IoT did lead to problems, the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) specifications body made "corrections" to the standard as recently as March, according to Ericsson. The Swedish vendor recently shared this information when speculating why there might have been talk about NB-IoT interoperability problems, saying the ecosystem would have to catch up with the 3GPP's changes. It initially described the corrections as "atypical," but subsequently said this label was "probably incorrect," in a further sign of insecurity. The 3GPP, meanwhile, did not respond to Light Reading's requests for comment on the matter.
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