With the gradual retirement of 2G and 3G technology, the release of low-band networks is demanded by operators and diverse vertical industries to cover the booming needs of communication and IoT applications. Although experts’ conclusions vary widely on the growth forecast of IoT, all agree on the exponential increase of machine-to-machine (M2M) connectivity in the following years. To meet the connectivity challenges imposed by the massive-scale digital transformation, NB-IoT (Narrowband IoT) is introduced to address the LPWAN requirements of the Internet of Things.
What is Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT)
Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT), also referred to as LTE Cat-NB, was initially identified as a standard Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) technology by 3GPP in Release 13 in 2016. It aims to integrate the physical and digital worlds and optimizes connectivity for low complex devices that require infrequent small amounts of data transmission, wider and deeper network coverage, long battery life, and cost-effectiveness. 3GPP Release 14 in 2017 brought several improvements to the NB-IoT standard later with LTE Cat LB2 to further reduce power consumption, enhance data connectivity and introduces limited mobility.
The potential for NB-IoT technology is huge. Devices using NB-IoT technology can work in the field for more than 10 years without battery changes. It comes with great affordability which allows it to deliver coverage to hundreds of millions of devices at a very low cost per unit. NB-IoT module price is comparable to that of existing 2G-based modules. It can also offer 20+dB penetrative coverage for deep underground and enclosed space scenarios to satisfy IoT deployment in hard-to-reach areas.
NB-IoT - Now A Part of the 5G Family
Although 5G is still at the initial stage of commercialization, it is estimated to dominate the global mobile communication technology soon. The 5G requirements, defined by ITU-R and 3GPP, cover three main components: 1/ mMTC: Mobile IoT/Massive IoT/LPWA; 2. uRLLC: Mission-Critical Communications; 3. Enhanced Mobile Broadband. In July 2019, 3GPP Release 16 has confirmed that NB-IoT meets the KPI requirements of mMTC scenarios and included NB-IoT as a candidate 5G LPWA technology. NB-IoT, therefore, will continue evolving as part of the 5G specifications and coexist in the same network with other 5G NR components.
The inclusion of NB-IoT into the 5G family will boost the technology evolution of the industry. In long term, it protects the industry’s return on investment (ROI) period by guaranteeing a longer technology life cycle. Mobile network operators (MNO) can plan NB-IoT in 5G for future long-term operation and the players in the vertical industry chain can include NB-IoT products and solutions in the long-term roadmap. In addition to investment concerns, the unified evolution of technologies can enhance interoperability with other 5G components and facilitate the network construction of the 5G ecosystem. ICT Enterprises and the verticals can work jointly to do researches, formulate industry standards and promote 5G.
Applications of 5G Narrowband IoT Technology
5G narrowband IoT is gaining momentum in diverse commercial scenarios such as smart city, smart metering, smart agriculture, smart logistics, smart manufacturing and smart home. Smart sensors, smart locks, smart street lights, these 5G narrowband IoT products and solutions are emerging rapidly in the market and evolving digital life.
5G-based NB-IoT technology is expected to play a crucial role in massive Machine Type Communication (mMTC). The wave of big data has driven the digitalization of enterprise and the realization of Industry 4.0. The adoption of 5G narrowband IoT applications in enterprise operations and manufacturing enables companies to optimize the production process and reduce operating costs by simplifying workflow, improving data accuracy, reducing manpower demands and achieving manufacturing automation. Water and gas metering would be excellent examples presenting efficiency, accuracy, automation, and cost-effectiveness of NB-IoT applications.
Besides benefits addressed in business, 5G narrowband IoT technology also offers tremendous advantages to consumers by connecting them to a smarter life. Smart sensors and readers embedded in white goods and other electronic devices allow users to remotely monitor and control their equipment and device, ensuring a healthy, safe, and convenient connected life.
5G narrowband IoT applications use NB-IoT modules to obtain wireless transmission capabilities. NB-IoT module is a small electronic device embedded in machines or objects that connect to wireless networks and send and receive data. It provides always-on connectivity and allows IoT applications to send data automatically without someone hitting a send button.
NB-IoT modules offer affordable wireless data transmission solutions for scenarios that require large-scale IoT deployment with massive end devices. It allows smart devices to access wireless networks with super-wide coverage, extremely low power consumption, and reliable connectivity. Besides the benefits brought by the communication technology itself, NB-IoT Modules also claims to be the smallest LTE modules. It has the smallest dimensions compared with other 5g and LTE modules. The miniature size makes them perfect for consumer devices, security, sophisticated medical devices and other space-constrained devices with ultra-small size as a core requirement. With the expansion of NB-IoT applications and the growing industry players’ involvement in NB-IoT technology, NB-IoT module expense has dropped significantly to the current level where it is comparable to that of existing 2G-based modules. Price advantages, together with its low power consumption, making it a cost-effective solution for daily IoT applications.
The technological advantages such as wide-area coverage, low power consumption, better reliability, and 10-year battery life have led to major operators adopting the technology, which are driving the growth of the NB-IoT market. According to Ericsson's 2020 Mobility report released in November, Cellular IoT connections are projected to reach 6.9 Billion growing at a CAGR of 23%, and NB-IoT and Cat-M1 connections will take up to 45% of the projected connections. The growth rate is expected to bring huge opportunities for businesses with the command of the ecosystem.