Vodafone has announced the launch of a commercial NB-IoT service in Spain as it races to close the gap with rival technologies Sigfox and LoRa.
All three technologies are designed to meet growing demand for low-power, wide-area (LPWA) networks, which can be used to provide low-cost data connectivity for devices like smart meters and asset-tracking modules.
However, while Sigfox and LoRa are already used to support millions of connections on unlicensed spectrum, NB-IoT has only just arrived in the market.
The standard is a new flavor of 4G that was included in the 3GPP's Release 13 last summer. Unlike Sigfox or LoRa, it uses licensed spectrum and can take advantage of 4G network equipment that operators have already deployed.
That will enable it to make speedy progress in the market, Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD) has argued, even boasting that NB-IoT will "crush" Sigfox and LoRa as it builds support. (See Vodafone to 'Crush' LoRa, Sigfox With NB-IoT.)
Vodafone claims that an NB-IoT service is already available in the Spanish cities of Madrid and Valencia and that coverage will be extended to Barcelona, Bilbao, Malaga and Seville by the end of March. By that stage, it says, more than 1,000 of its mobile sites will support NB-IoT, with each site capable of supporting more than 100,000 devices.
In a blog on the latest developments, Vodafone was also keen to explain how it has been able to get NB-IoT up and running so quickly.
Installing the software, it said, required nothing more than a software upgrade, which took just a few hours in Valencia. The operator has previously said that about 80% of its basestations worldwide will be able to support NB-IoT following a software upgrade, implying that others will require new hardware as well.
Vodafone also revealed that it is running NB-IoT services over its 800MHz spectrum to maximize signal strength and coverage. It reckons the NB-IoT signal covers an area about seven times the size of one based on 2G technology.
While licensed spectrum should certainly not be subject to the congestion and interference that can be a problem on unlicensed airwaves, other mobile operators have been less resistant to Sigfox and LoRa than Vodafone has.
France's Orange (NYSE: FTE), for instance, has deployed a LoRa network in France, while SK Telecom (Nasdaq: SKM) has been rolling the technology out in South Korea. In the meantime, European cable group Altice has announced a commitment to Sigfox. (See Altice, Sigfox Join Forces in French IoT Battle, Orange Hails LoRa Breakthrough as Bouygues Ups IoT Game and SK Telecom Sees LTE-M, LoRa as Its 'Two Main IoT Pillars'.)
Those operators and others have been eager to address existing demand for Internet of Things services in the immediate absence of a cellular LPWA technology.
Representatives from Sigfox and the LoRa Alliance industry association, which promotes LoRa technology, continue to insist that NB-IoT is at a technological and commercial disadvantage to its unlicensed-spectrum rivals. Sigfox, for example, says it can more efficiently support low-data-rate connections and that its services cost as little as $1 per device annually. It also reckons NB-IoT chips will remain a lot costlier than Sigfox chips for the foreseeable future. (See Sigfox Said to Face Customer Backlash.)
Vodafone's NB-IoT launch in Spain forms part of a European push that will see the technology introduced to the markets of Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands by the end of March, the operator has said. (See Vodafone Ups IoT Stakes With 2017 Plan for NB-IoT.)
During Informa's IoT World 2016 event in Dublin in November, Lauren Morris, the head of the operator's Irish IoT business, said that NB-IoT would be available for testing in the Irish market from January. (See Vodafone Ireland to Launch NB-IoT in Jan 2017.)
— Iain Morris, , News Editor, Light Reading