Vodafone reckons the emerging NB-IoT standard will be the death of rival technologies like Sigfox and LoRa, which have been relying on the use of unlicensed spectrum to support services.
NB-IoT is one of several licensed-spectrum technologies designed to overcome the power and distance limitations of mainstream cellular standards in Internet of Things (IoT) settings.
But it faces competition from so-called low-power, wide-area (LPWA) network technologies that are already on the market. The most high profile of these LPWA rivals include Sigfox , a French company that claims to be rolling out networks in 17 countries, and LoRa, a more "open" system whose supporters include French operators Orange (NYSE: FTE) and Bouygues Telecom . (See Sigfox Slams 'Proprietary' LoRa, Costly LTE and Orange Hails LoRa Breakthrough as Bouygues Ups IoT Game.)
Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD), by contrast, has thrown additional weight behind NB-IoT with the opening earlier today of a dedicated NB-IoT lab at its UK headquarters in Newbury, in partnership with Chinese equipment supplier Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd.
The operator was already a major player in the NB-IoT Forum, an association established in late 2015 to spur the development of the technology.
Developers and organizations looking to use NB-IoT to support commercial services will now be able to test their applications at Vodafone's new facility.
Similar IoT facilities are planned at other locations internationally, but none will support the testing of unlicensed-spectrum technologies, according to Matt Beal, Vodafone's director of innovation and architecture.
"NB-IoT will crush Sigfox and LoRa because it means there will be no need for them," Beal told Light Reading on the sidelines of the Newbury lab opening.
Supporters of Sigfox and LoRa note that NB-IoT has yet to see commercial deployment and will remain a costly alternative for several years. But Beal dismisses such concerns, arguing that mobile operators backing NB-IoT have much larger overall customer bases than companies using Sigfox and LoRa and that NB-IoT equipment makers will price their products to reflect growing interest in the technology.
Beal is also sanguine on the issue of upfront investment, claiming that between 80% and 90% of Vodafone's base stations use single RAN technology and therefore will require only a software upgrade to support NB-IoT.
Even so, ensuring networks can support NB-IoT might be a more expensive process for operators that maintain older base stations. There have also been suggestions that NB-IoT will not be included in the 3GPP's Release 13 this June, as the specifications body intends, but instead slip to a future Release 14, which could be a major setback for the technology.
According to an industry source, the current hold-ups are the result of an intellectual property battle between Sweden's Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) and Huawei, with the 3GPP keen to avoid a "Qualcomm situation" that leaves one company in the driver's seat.
"Don't believe a word of it," said Luke Ibbetson, Vodafone's chief engineer for Group R&D, when asked about standardization delays during a tour of the operator's new NB-IoT facility. "This will be completely locked down by June."
Indeed, Ibbetson is confident that full commercial deployments of NB-IoT will happen in the first half of 2017.
That target certainly looks bullish. French telecom incumbent Orange has previously told Light Reading it hopes to be able to provide LPWA-like capabilities over a 3GPP standard by the end of 2017. (See LoRa May Not Be for Long Haul at Orange.)
In the meantime it is investing in a network based on LoRa technology in France. Orange executives have hinted LoRa is a stopgap until a 3GPP standard emerges, but the operator's strategy suggests it may be hedging its bets.
While Beal expects NB-IoT to spell the demise of Sigfox and LoRa, there is a possibility those LPWA technologies become more firmly established while NB-IoT is taking its fledgling steps -- especially if the standardization process does suffer further delays.
A spokesman for the LoRa Alliance , an association supporting the development of LoRa technology, claims that NB-IoT does not support downlink communications as effectively as LoRa. That would make it less suitable in scenarios where there is a need to send communications from the network to sensors deployed in devices.
The same spokesman also rejects the notion that LoRa versus NB-IoT is a battle between unlicensed and licensed, as service providers look to avoid the interference issues often associated with the former.
LoRa can already be deployed in licensed spectrum bands, he says, but doing so would drive up subscription pricing because of the valuations attached to these airwaves.
While Vodafone seems unlikely ever to become a convert to either LoRa or Sigfox, it does have an eye on other 3GPP-backed technologies targeting the IoT market, including EC-GSM and LTE-M, which could have a role to play in particular scenarios.
But its primary interest remains NB-IoT, with Beal describing the opening of the Newbury lab as a major "catalyst" for the industry. "This is akin to the smartphone world when the app store was built -- this is the beginning of the app store for telcos," he told reporters, analysts and industry figures during a presentation at the opening of the lab.
Vodafone reckons there will be 2.4 billion "addressable M2M [machine-to-machine] connections" globally by 2020 and is forecasting that 1.4 billion of these will rely on LPWA technologies including NB-IoT.
— Iain Morris, , News Editor, Light Reading