New business cases, technologies driving NB-IoT toward market acceptance (Reality Check)
With the announcements by three major U.S. telecom carriers this year, and significant activity taking place in China, narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) has come out of the shadows in a big way. The announcements by AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile that they would be stepping up their efforts and building out their NB-IoT networks over the next year or two marked a major shift in thinking in the U.S. market especially, as the carriers have already made a significant investment in LTE-Cat M1 networks. These LTE-based networks offer data rates of around 1 Mbps, about four times the speed of what NB-IoT can deliver.
But as we’ve seen with many Internet of Things (IoT) applications, speed isn’t everything. In fact, for many IoT applications, data throughput is one of the least sought-after requirements because, for these particular use cases, the cost and power associated with LTE don’t match up with the ROI expectations of users. There are hundreds of emerging use cases across dozens of vertical markets where NB-IoT’s characteristics—ultra-reliable connectivity, lower cost, support for a high number of devices per cell, ease of integration, proven LTE-based security mechanisms and low power consumption—trump speed.
Because NB-IoT checks off so many boxes for industrial, public and consumer use, it’s enabling another shift; real business use cases that drive value instead of simply looking at IoT’s broad capabilities as mere “applications.”
Emerging business use cases
A wealth of new implementations are emerging for businesses that were not possible in the past due to the high cost and device power consumption required for cellular. On a broad level, these can be lumped into three main categories: Industrial, Public and Consumer. NB-IoT has opened the industry up beyond the traditional “application” stories to dive more deeply into how the technology is being applied on a variety of levels.
For example, smart agriculture and smart cities have long been IoT verticals, but it’s the real-life practices that are capturing the imagination and the revenue. For example, soil sensors and rat traps need to communicate infrequently, but due to their often remote nature (in far-flung fields or deep underground in sewer systems), it’s also inconvenient to check them manually. Since alerts are on a need-to-know basis (i.e., a trap being sprung), it was hard to find an ROI with LTE. NB-IoT’s characteristics of low-power, infrequent transmissions, make it a perfect fit.
In home or smart building scenarios, alarm and event detection systems can be powered by NB-IoT for everything from gas leakage diagnostics to home intrusion detection solution. Systems can even offer intelligence for detected events such as a sudden increase in temperature or the presence of smoke that might lead to disaster like a fire.
In many cities, smart bikes and scooters can be found anywhere—and everywhere, especially abandoned on sidewalks. NB-IoT is being used to help more cost-effectively track these transportation devices as they are operated in one spot and abandoned in another to help companies meet guidelines set by the cities.
Even traditional industrial IoT applications such as asset and logistics tracking are getting a makeover thanks to the surge in availability of NB-IoT networks. LPWA network technologies, including NB-IoT, are enabling smaller, lower-cost devices that can “track and monitor everything from sea-freight containers to bicycles, patients to pets, supermarket trolleys to pallets, paving the way for new innovative solutions and business opportunities,” according to Adarsh Krishnan, principal analyst at ABI Research, in the company’s latest LPWA report. Asset tracking, which includes monitoring stationary or slow-moving assets, will have the largest share of overall LPWA connections in 2023, accounting for over 45% worldwide, ABI says. As coverage in the U.S., Europe and China grows, additional business uses cases will undoubtedly appear.
Driven by emerging technology
The interest in NB-IoT isn’t simply market-driven. New technologies have emerged that are making it easier and more cost effective to use NB-IoT devices, sensors and networks. Technology breakthroughs in antenna technology will help propel many of these new business use cases.
Multiband capabilities. As with any cellular technology, the more places you try to make it work, the higher the cost, as every global market utilizes one or more different frequency bands. While the cost of NB-IoT devices and antennas with global coverage would possibly defeat the ROI benefits, grouping a small number of bands on a single antenna and matching circuit on the device side can help achieve coverage in several markets (such as EU and U.S.) if the application demands it. This doesn’t necessarily mean the device is in motion, as many multi-location enterprises would benefit from the economies of scale associated with using the same device regardless of location. Some applications require deeper penetration, such as those so the next generation of antennas will take into consideration an even wider array of frequency bands.
Size. Technology breakthroughs are driving the form factor, profile and footprint of NB-IoT antennas even smaller, making them easy to integrate within even the smallest IoT devices.
Materials. Most PCB-based antenna utilize FR4 epoxy glass material because of its very low cost and excellent mechanical properties that are a good match for antenna electronics. However, emerging technologies will also include multiband capabilities on a ceramic chip antenna for an even smaller form factor.
After a low-key start as the buzz from other LPWA technologies captured industry attention, NB-IoT is emerging as a winner. Over the coming year, as network buildouts advance, we’ll see an even greater number of business use cases emerge—and additional technology advances to help make them a reality.
About the author
Ronan is a co-founder of Taoglas and has over 18 years’ experience in the electronics industry, mostly earned during his time in Asia. Ronan’s expertise in this area covers a broad spectrum, with a key focus on production, quality processes, and antenna and wireless product development. Ronan operates out of Taoglas headquarters in Ireland and serves as co-CEO of Taoglas Group. Additionally, he has overall responsibility for the Taoglas EMEA region and Taoglas Taiwan operations, where he spends a number of months each year.