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The NB-IoT Train Is Delayed

NB-IoT was supposed to take the industry by storm and sound the death knell for LPWAN rivals, but it has not quite gone according to expectations.

Iain Morris

March 27, 2017

8 Min Read
The NB-IoT Train Is Delayed

This was supposed to be the year when NB-IoT exploded into the market and left its network rivals reeling from the impact:

"NB-IoT will crush Sigfox and LoRa because it means there will be no need for them," said Matt Beal, Vodafone's director of innovation and architecture, during a press briefing in April last year. "The NB-IoT train is coming," a spokesperson for the LoRa Alliance told Light Reading, hinting at the wreckage of opportunities for some other technologies. (See Vodafone to 'Crush' LoRa, Sigfox With NB-IoT and The NB-IoT Train Is Coming.)

So far there has been no such cataclysm.

While the momentum behind NB-IoT is indisputable, it is not sweeping aside the alternatives as some had predicted. LoRa enthusiasts in the telco industry have been unwavering in their commitment to the technology. Since NB-IoT became a commercial reality, Sigfox has won more support from cellular operators than it ever did before. And Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD)'s ballyhooed rollout of NB-IoT is behind schedule. If NB-IoT is a train, it currently looks more like one of the lurching contraptions that are the scourge of London commuters than a Japanese Shinkansen. (See Vodafone to Miss NB-IoT Launch Targets.)

Vodafone's bullishness in April 2016 was perhaps understandable. At the time, companies that wanted to provide low-power, wide-area network (LPWAN) connectivity for smart meters and similar gadgetry had limited options. Mainstream cellular, with its focus on bandwidth-hungry applications, was largely unsuited to the task, and expensive to boot. That left a crop of technologies that had sprung up to fill the cellular vacuum, with Sigfox and LoRa the most prominent. Using unlicensed spectrum, these were developed with the Internet of Things (IoT) in mind and cost little to run. But they had drawbacks, said their critics: The use of unlicensed spectrum made them subject to congestion and interference, argued some, while others complained about their proprietary nature. A cellular standard developed specifically for LPWAN purposes would give IoT players the answer they needed.

Labeled NB-IoT, that technology was finally standardized last summer, becoming a commercial reality a few months ago. But it does not look poised to "crush" LoRa or Sigfox anytime soon. In February, Spanish cellular giant Telefónica threw its considerable weight behind Sigfox when it struck a "global deal" with the French company that develops the technology. Asked why, a spokesperson for Telefónica told Light Reading that Sigfox remained the "only option" for nationwide IoT deployments in countries where it was available (the Sigfox footprint covered 31 countries in February), despite the emergence of NB-IoT. (See Sigfox 'Only Option' Today, Says Telefónica.)

Sigfox has continued to make inroads since then. Earlier today, Swedish incumbent Telia Company said it would include Sigfox as a connectivity option for customers in Estonia through a tie-up with the French IoT player and a small network operator called Connected Baltics, which is Sigfox's Estonian licensee. While this does not mean Telia itself is building a Sigfox network, it seems to mark a shift for the Swedish operator. Only last November, Hans Dahlberg, the vice president of Telia's IoT business, told attendees at an Informa IoT conference in Dublin that his company was "betting" on NB-IoT rather than LPWAN technologies using unlicensed spectrum. Light Reading approached Telia for an explanation of the Sigfox move, but had yet to hear back at the time of publication. (See Telia 'Betting' on NB-IoT Over LoRa, Sigfox.)

Want to know more about the Internet of Things? Check out our dedicated IoT content channel here on Light Reading.

Support for LoRa within the cellular community seems even more resolute. In 2015, France's Orange (NYSE: FTE) unveiled plans to build a LoRa network to support demand for IoT connectivity. Like Telefónica and other service providers, Orange has championed LoRa as a technology that can address immediate IoT needs while cellular options remain commercially unavailable. It has even previously hinted that it might ultimately replace LoRa with a 3GPP-sanctioned technology. But when Orange announced a commitment to a cellular LPWAN technology last month, it was to LTE-M, not NB-IoT. And any phasing-out of LoRa now seems unlikely, at least in the short term. "There are no plans for that," said Yves Bellego, Orange's director of technical strategy, during a meeting with Light Reading at last month's Mobile World Congress. "For all customers today that have LoRa, we will continue to provide services in the future." (See LoRa May Not Be for Long Haul at Orange.)

Figure 1: Source: Actility. Note: In the chart, LTE cat NB1 refers to NB-IoT; LTE cat M1 refers to LTE-M. Source: Actility. Note: In the chart, LTE cat NB1 refers to NB-IoT; LTE cat M1 refers to LTE-M.

KPN Telecom NV (NYSE: KPN) of the Netherlands and South Korea's SK Telecom (Nasdaq: SKM) are also developing LPWAN strategies based on the use of both LoRa and LTE-M. SK Telecom says it is reserving LoRa largely for "low mobility" services and that LTE-M -- a 3GPP standard delivering more bandwidth than NB-IoT -- will address demand for connected car and other "high mobility" applications. Describing LoRa and LTE-M as its "two main IoT pillars" last July, the operator said at the time that it would "make a decision on NB-IoT based on business needs in the future." It has made no NB-IoT commitments since then. (See SK Telecom Sees LTE-M, LoRa as Its 'Two Main IoT Pillars'.)

Next page: Hold-ups ahead

Hold-ups ahead
Yet for all of these operators, the investment in LoRa casts doubt over interest in NB-IoT, which is largely aimed at the same market opportunities. Gabor Pop, a solutions marketing manager with IoT software company Actility, interprets Orange's LTE-M decision as a sign that it may steer clear of NB-IoT for a while. "They are going for LTE-M, they are considering keeping LoRa, and they are not investing in NB-IoT for the moment," he said during an LPWAN conference in Paris last week. (See IoT Startup Actility to Add 3GPP Support in 2016.)

As a company that has pinned its hopes on both LoRa and LTE-M, Actility obviously has a vested interest in promoting those technologies over their competitors. But there are other worrying signs for NB-IoT. Just last week, Vodafone admitted to Light Reading that it would miss launch targets for NB-IoT in at least two of the four markets previously identified for an early 2017 rollout. Customers in Ireland and the Netherlands are not yet "ready" for NB-IoT services, said a spokesperson for the UK-based operator, when asked to explain those delays.

That in itself is troubling. After all, a number of service providers insist they are investing in LoRa and Sigfox to meet existing demand for IoT connectivity. The question is whether other factors may also be holding up the NB-IoT train. An industry source, who first alerted Light Reading to the Vodafone delays, claims the operator has had difficulty sourcing NB-IoT modules. "Given the global support for NB-IoT, we don't believe that sourcing of modules will be an issue," said a Vodafone spokesperson in emailed comments when asked about this, without saying whether module sourcing had been an issue so far.

Nevertheless, there are other suggestions that rollouts are not going as smoothly as expected. "Some companies oversold NB-IoT and now the operators realize it is not that easy a deployment," says Actility's Pop. "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. It is an unclear landscape and that is why operators are deciding to deploy LoRa and wait a couple of years for NB-IoT."

Clearly, it is still very early days for NB-IoT. Despite its apparent teething troubles, it seems bound to play a big role given the backing it has already secured from major telcos such as Germany's Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT) and China Mobile Ltd. (NYSE: CHL) -- not to mention Vodafone. In the meantime, both Sigfox and LoRa will continue to attract their fair share of critics, including those who doubt that any proprietary technology has a long-term future in the wireless communications industry. But any NB-IoT delays will hand a short-term opportunity to players that have chosen to ride along the Sigfox and LoRa tracks, including those from outside the cellular community, instead of waiting to board NB-IoT. For the time being, LPWAN players have several routes out of the station. (See Weightless Aims to Exert Gravitational IoT Pull.)

— Iain Morris, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, News Editor, Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

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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