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India readying to dominate the NB-IoT world

NB-IoT finds its way out of the dark, as its narrowband software updates come online. India could well become a global player in NB-IoT, second only to China

Once COVID-19 recedes, whatever shape the new normal ends up taking, the need for connectivity in all areas of economic, social, and domestic life will be higher than ever – with consequent drive on the demand for cellular IoT (Internet of Things) devices.

Businesses, governments, and organizations of all kinds will need to adapt quickly to this sudden and fundamental change – automating procedures, securing assets, and monitoring processes remotely to support social- distancing measures. Questions will need to be addressed. How will the automotive industry protect shop-floor personnel once production resumes? How will logistics companies track inventories without requiring staff to mingle? And how will people working from home manage household appliances with a minimum of distraction, or those observing quarantine track their utility consumption without admitting call-out staff for meter readings?

The answers will vary in each case, of course, but the requirement for connectivity between devices will prove a common factor. And narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) is quickly emerging as an integral part in this story. NB-IoT modules are already proliferating rapidly in contexts as diverse as smart locks, intelligent road management, asset tracking, animal monitoring, and smart home appliances. In particular, however, its extraordinary potential in connected industry has made industrial IoT the leading source of deployments to date, with smart manufacturing forecast to remain the fastest-growing IoT segment into the mid-2020s.

Standardized by 3GPP, NB-IoT is a low-power wide-area (LPWA) technology that can enable a wide range of new IoT devices and services. NB-IoT minimizes the power consumption of connected devices, while increasing system capacity and spectral efficiency, especially in locations that cannot easily be covered by conventional cellular technologies. In a wide range of use-cases, NB-IoT-connected devices can have a battery life of more than 10 years.

NB-IoT employs a new physical layer with signals and channels to meet the demanding requirements of extended coverage in rural areas and deep indoors, while enabling very low device complexity. The underlying technology is much simpler than that of GSM/GPRS modules, and the cost of NB-IoT modules is likely to decrease rapidly as demand increases.

Supported by all major mobile equipment, chipset and module manufacturers, NB-IoT can co-exist with 2G, 3G, and 4G mobile networks. It also benefits from all the security and privacy features of mobile networks, such as support for user-identity confidentiality, entity authentication, data integrity, and mobile equipment identification.

NB-IoT (also known as Cat-NB1) and LTE-M (Cat-M1 or eMTC) have in recent years become the two main narrowband technologies for low-power IoT use-cases, and wide coverage areas. Based on 3GPP standardized global NB-IoT or LTE-M specifications are by far the most widely used, mainly because they used 2G and 3G mobile networks from the beginning and, since 2017, are compliant with 4G-LTE. In July 2020, the certification body 3GPP has recognized NB-IoT and LTE-M as also compliant with the 5G standard.

LTE-M is more applicable to mobility environments and NB-IoT allows extreme optimizations in the case of very-low bandwidth networks and is very tolerant of delays in data distribution. NB-IoT devices are cheaper than those based on LTE-M, which facilitates the greater implementation of the first.

There are LPWA technologies on the market, such as Sigfox or LoRa, that strive for greater visibility and implementation, especially in the United States, but it seems that the balance is relentlessly tilting in favor of NB-IoT and, for some specific applications from LTE-M.

IoT Analytics agrees. NB-IoT and LoRa/LoRaWAN will continue to dominate the market in the coming five years, with LTE-M and Sigfox in distant third and fourth places, respectively. While other technologies will continue to exist, at this point, it does not appear as though they will play a significant role in the overall global market, although they remain attractive for certain niche applications.

Being the devil’s advocate. Competitors maintain that the cellular industry has messed up with NB-IoT, because, on one hand, the cellular IoT stats are starting to look decent but on the other, a part of the crowd remains unmoved; their non-cellular technology is better in just about every way. Plus, NTT in Japan and DISH in the US have both bailed on NB-IoT. It is a sure sign that NB-IoT is doomed, they protest. Adarsh Krishnan’s comments at ABI Research are worth consideration. “They were just business decisions – NB-IoT wasn’t doing much for NTT, and DISH wanted to focus on its 5G portfolio. But that is all. We haven’t seen it anywhere else; what we have seen, instead, is this emphasis on LTE-M as a longer-term play for enterprises to migrate away from 2G and 3G, and on NB-IoT as this massive IoT technology for all kinds of new use-cases. That is really what we are seeing at the moment, even if there are a few stumbling blocks still,” says Krishnan.

Singapore-based IoT operator and development house UnaBiz is one of the more vocal protagonists. Sigfox has its problems, it observes, but it is the best technology out of them all, remarks Henri Bong, the company’s founder and chief. And Bong would know. UnaBiz, established as a regional Sigfox operator, has a couple of supply contracts at the top-end of the current IoT scale; most notably, it worked with NICIGAS in Japan on a deal for 850,000 gas meters. Another, with Australian keg rental provider Konvoy, via local Sigfox operators Thinxtra, is worth around 20,000 connections, and set to scale larger. But its ambition is bigger; it has USD 25 million in its pocket, from a recent Series B round, to go with the USD 10 million it raised from KDDI and others in 2018, and wants to establish itself as a production house for the broader, non-cellular low-power wide-area (LPWA) market.

The theory is interesting; the one thing the non-cellular LPWA brigade has in its favor is its noisy dynamism. A LoRaWAN shindig, for instance, strikes a very different tone to the well-heeled glamor shows put on by the telecoms set. Most of the mobile industry’s troubles – network roaming, technical interoperability, enterprise value, co-creation – have been grappled with at these sessions for years, and most of the major IoT innovations around efficiency and value have come from their delegates.

We see customers who started with LoRa because they thought they would deliver; but many of these IoT applications require large geographical footprints, and so they have felt deceived. They are good technologies, no question. But they are really more suited to small areas, for campus installations and factory use cases – for a bunch of buildings, yes, but not for national and international projects. So, there is no back door for non-cellular technology.

However, LoRaWAN, whatever their claims, have been required to build infrastructure from scratch, and are way short of global coverage – in every corner of every market. Even their large-scale successes, hovering around the million-mark, are parochial affairs, compared to the kind of multi-market massive IoT contracts mobile operators are supposed to be lining up.

“There will be cases that need more bandwidth and security, which will naturally migrate toward cellular, and onto LTE-M and NB-IoT – if NB-IoT still exists. And I strongly believe NB-IoT could be stopped anytime soon. But, yes, people will go to LTE-M if they want more bandwidth,” concludes Bong.

Market outlook. The past two years have brought more than a four-fold increase in NB-IoT connections, driven by key applications like utilities metering, but also more diverse implementations for verticals from agriculture to transport.

175 operators have launched NB-IoT (120) or LTE-M (55) networks so far, says GSA; 518 devices support one or the other, or both, including 432 NB-IoT Cat-NB-1 (362) and Cat-NB2 (71) devices, and 371 LTE-M (Cat-M) units. Most Western-European countries, the United States and Canada, Japan, Australia, Thailand, Turkey, and some South American countries, such as Brazil, Argentina, or Colombia, have LTE-M and NB-IoT networks. Mexico is a particular case, because it only has LTE-M networks. The rest of the world, especially China, Southeast Asian countries, India, South Africa, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and several countries in Central Europe and Italy, have only NB-IoT networks, with the majority of the world’s population and users. Africa is not covered at all except for South Africa.

All of Asia and part of Europe continue to be covered only by NB-IoT networks and it is expected that by far the most important market, China, will remain focused on NB-IoT.

China has set the pace with China Mobile, China Telecom, and China Unicom together having deployed more than 700,000 NB-IoT base stations nationwide, as on August 2021, with the number of mobile IoT connections reaching 1.3 billion.

Vodafone continues to lead the global market outside of China with a 6-percent global market share. US-based AT&T grew 22 percent YoY and held a 4-percent global market share in 1H2021. IoT initiatives in China during the last 1.5 years were much less affected by COVID-19 and, in many cases, continued as planned after a short COVID-19 lockdown.

In 1H2020, the share of connected IoT devices using unlicensed LPWA (e.g., long-range (LoRa) and Sigfox) led with a 53-percent share, and licensed LPWA (i.e., narrow-band IoT (NB-IoT) and LTE-machine-type communication (LTE-M)) contributed 47 percent of global LPWA connections. A year later, licensed LPWA leads with a 54-percent share, while unlicensed LPWA has a 46-percent share of global LPWA connections. A key reason is that NB-IoT connections grew 75 percent YoY in 1H2021. NB-IoT as a single technology now dominates the LPWA connection market with 44 percent market share, and LoRa has slipped to second place with a 37-percent share of global connections.

In the last 12 months, asset tracking and monitoring were the key applications driving unlicensed LPWA growth, while growth in NB-IoT was driven by smart meters and buildings and infrastructure industry verticals. The number of connected IoT devices using cellular technology grew 18 percent YoY to reach 2 billion by the end of the first half (1H) of 2021.

The latest mobility report from Ericsson forecasts there will be over 26.4 billion IoT connections in 2026. The lion’s share (20.6 billion – almost four-fifths) of these are on short-range IoT tech, like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth; cellular IoT will account for 5.4 billion by the end of the period, it says. Massive IoT connections on NB-IoT and LTE-M will increase by almost 80 percent during 2021 to reach close to 330 million; these will comprise 46 percent of all cellular IoT connections in 2026 (about 2.48 billion out of 5.4 billion).

By 2026, 44 percent (2.16 billion) of cellular IoT connections will count as broadband IoT in Ericsson’s terminology, on either 4G or 5G. The rest (about 10 percent) will be on old 2G and 3G networks. Ericsson said 5G is extending to more IoT devices through the end of 2021, including to cameras, virtual reality headsets, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs/drones), and into more sensitive time-critical communications in 2022.

But 4G will remain the dominant cellular IoT technology in 2026, it said. Support for time-critical communications, with ultra-reliable low-latency (URLLC) aspects in Releases 16 and 17 of the 5G standard – for remote control of robots, from cloud robotics, cloud gaming, and, notably for Industry 4.0, with the introduction of time-sensitive networking (TSN) tech, for niche industrial automation – will comprise a minor share of the broadband IoT count.

NB-IoT has arrived rather late in India when compared to other countries, and hence there are dozens of NB-IoT modules available from every major cellular module manufacturer. Many are in the process of rolling out their second-generation (cost-optimized) modules over the next few months.

The IoT market in India is expected to have clocked revenues of USD 9 billion, with an installed base of 1.9 billion devices in 2020, according to a Deloitte NASSCOM report. Spending is expected to increase in transport and logistics, healthcare and agriculture, among other areas.

India could well become a global player in NB-IoT, second only to China, as its narrowband software updates come online. There are interesting satellite-based deployments already being launched that provide pan-Indian coverage to sensors and other unconnected machines.

Reliance Jio’s pan-India IoT network, based on narrowband IoT technology, is already operational, which was launched in partnership with Samsung. The telco is now integrating its IoT solution with other OEMs and has tied up systems integrators for the rollout. Reliance is looking to tap the smart city plans underway in many municipalities with its smart lighting solutions to begin with.

In April 2021, Jio deployed its first commercial NB-IoT service for Tata Power Delhi Distribution’s (Tata Power-DDL) smart meters. The DISCOM supplies electricity to North Delhi. Jio aims to have a network of a billion IoT devices to its IoT platform, unlocking `20,000 crore in annual revenue opportunity. It has successfully conducted pilots with various electricity distribution companies (DISCOMs).

As per Frost & Sullivan’s Mobile Services Report 4QFY21, Airtel IoT had the highest revenue share of 45.5 percent in the Enterprise M2M (machine-to-machine) category. Airtel IoT that currently supports over 6 million managed IoT connections is an end-to-end platform with the capability to connect and manage billions of devices and applications in a highly secure and seamless fashion. At its core is Airtel’s robust 5G-ready network that comes with the option to deploy NB-IoT, 4G, or 2G connectivity using Airtel e-SIM technology.

“NB-IoT network readiness is available across the country. Depending upon where we are activating the customer, we are activating NB-IoT network accordingly,” said Ajay Chitkara, Director & CEO – Airtel Business at a press meet in April 2021. “India’s cellular connectivity-based IoT market is forecasted to grow to `10,000 crore by 2022, driven by connected cars and appliances, smart factories, and utilities, and other use cases,” he added.

Vodafone Idea also provides IoT services to its enterprise clients. Vodafone Idea has signed up 20 partners who are using the company’s IoT solutions. It is busy onboarding more enterprises. Back home, the operator has doubled the number of sites in its narrowband internet of things (NB-IoT) network, and its coverage now reaches 98 percent of the UK.

“The launch of Vodafone Idea IoT solutions is a strategic step toward making VIL business an IoT ecosystem integrator for Indian enterprises, and for positioning VIL to have an ecosystem play driving our transformation from a telco to a techco,” said Ravinder Takkar, chief executive, Vodafone Idea.

Bharat Sanchar Nigam (BSNL), in partnership with Skylotech India (Skylo), also launched its NB-IoT, world’s first satellite-based NB-IoT network in December 2020. Indigenously developed, a small, smart, rugged box, the Skylo user terminal interfaces with sensors and transmits data to the Skylo network and into people’s

The accompanying data platform provides an immersive, visual, experience for industry-specific applications on mobile or desktop. It gives users the ability to take immediate and appropriate action, no matter where they are. This connectivity layer will complement smartphone-centric mobile and Wi-Fi networks, and bring online new applications for the first time.

At a time when telecom operators are preparing to give a push to their IoT business through NB-IoT technology, Tata Communications and SenRa are also making efforts to build a parallel network, LPWAN based on LoRaWAN technology, to drive India’s IoT ecosystem, mainly targeting government’s projects like Smart City Mission and Swatch Bharat.

NB-IoT is finding its way out of the dark, as the 5G and 2G shadows retreat, and its value gets clearer. 2G is sunsetting in the next five years and India has already shut down 3G networks. And there is no other choice for massive IoT. There is no NR provision for low-power IoT. All the 5G data rates address eMBB and URLLC.

For mMTC, it is about extending LTE-M and NB-IoT. Release 17 and 18 introduce RedCap and e-RedCap for down-to-10 Mbps applications. But for the few-hundred kbps-types of apps, which is the target for LTE-M and NB-IoT, there is no equivalent.

So, LTE-M and NB-IoT will extend – and will do so also because of the non-promise of Lo- RaWAN and Sigfox.

The final irony is the industry’s blurring of NB-IoT and LTE-M in the early days is being made real in the standardization process. Where these technologies have been quite distinct, they become increasingly aligned with Cat- NB2. They are getting closer; the distinction is narrowing all the time.

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