HomeCarriers‘NB-IoT could be stopped at any time’ – IoT rivals eye a knockout (NB-IoT challenge #11)

‘NB-IoT could be stopped at any time’ – IoT rivals eye a knockout (NB-IoT challenge #11)

This article is continued from a previous entry, covering key NB-IoT challenges 1-5 (available here) and key NB-IoT challenges 6-10 (available here). All of these articles are taken from a new report, entitled NB-IoT – what has gone wrong, and when will it go right? The full report is available here. A webinar on the same topic is available here, with panellists from BICS, Sequans, and Nordic Semiconductor. 

One for the road; why not? None of the other entries in this list mention the competitor landscape, which is noisy and wild, and quite ready to say the cellular industry has messed up with NB-IoT. Because, on one hand, the cellular IoT stats are starting to look decent: 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. 

But on the other, a part of the crowd remains unmoved; their non-cellular tech is better in just about every way, they whoop and holler. Plus, they brandish exhibit A in the take-down; that NTT in Japan and DISH in the US have both bailed on NB-IoT. It is a sure sign NB-IoT is doomed, they protest. Singapore-based IoT development house UnaBiz is one of the more vocal protagonists in this (mixed-metaphor) sporting play, both in the stands and down in the dugout. Sigfox has its problems, it observes, but it is the best technology out of them all, says Henri Bong, its founder and chief. 

Bong – banging the drum for a ‘unified LPWAN world’

“Sigfox has work to do to open the technology up, and find new ways to do business. But I can tell you we have designed with Sigfox, LoRa, NB-IoT, and LTE-M, and in terms of technology and TCO – the most important thing for the customer – Sigfox is the lowest. It is the lowest as well in terms of energy consumption and natural autonomy; it is by far the most optimised. Just because the sensor doesn’t connect [before transmitting]; it sends the message without asking. The Sigfox protocol has been designed to be very efficient in terms of TCO.”

But is that enough? Besides the tech (whatever the result when the whistle blows), is Sigfox really a better solution? Bong responds, and twists the knife on NB-IoT: “I’m not really saying that. It is better optimised and more affordable, but there will be cases that need more bandwidth and security, which will naturally migrate towards 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.” It is the kind of thing that gets said a lot in the (new) Wild West of wide-area IoT. 

But Bong has earned the right to be heard; he knows the market, and the challenges and opportunities for each side. 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. But its ambition is bigger; it has $25 million in its pocket, from a recent Series B round, to go with the $10 million it raised from KDDI and others in 2018, and wants to establish itself as a production house for the broader low-power wide-area (LPWA) market.

The theory is interesting; the one thing the non-cellular LPWA brigade has in its favour is its noisy dynamism. A LoRaWAN shindig, for instance – all close collaboration, can-do optimism, coffee breath – strikes a very different tone to the well-heeled glamour 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. 

This is the faceoff, ultimately, for all the coaches and fans in the NB-IoT end. The strength of the opposition is in its number, variety, flexibility, and initiative. Bong wants to bottle this scattered dynamism into a single brew, and issue it to his team in the break in order to unify and fortify its combative constituents against the slow-moving old galacticos across the way. “The problem is Sigfox and LoRa are fighting for nothing – for a pie that is getting smaller [in percentage terms] everyday, because of the cellular world,” he explains.

“And suddenly these two camps have realised what is in front of them – all the cellular world, all of these giants of the industry, lined up against them, just a bunch of small disruptors promoting ultra low-cost IoT. So we hope – I hope – for some synergies. Because I can see them.” But we should consider the opposite view, which most commentators in the telecoms market subscribe to; that LoRaWAN and Sigfox, 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. What about NTT and DISH; were their decisions in 2020 to shut-down their NB-IoT networks and write-off their NB-IoT investments just freak strategic reversals? Or is there something in the air? Adarsh Krishnan at ABI Research says not to put much store in them. 

Krishnan – moves to can NB-IoT are ‘just business’

He comments: “They were just business decisions – because NB-IoT wasn’t doing much for NTT, and because 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.”

What about the buzzy threat down the flanks from these jinky LoRaWAN and Sigfox wingers? Have the mobile operators left the ‘gate’ open, while they do up their shoelaces and pick fluff from their belly buttons? Is an upset on the cards? “No, no,” responds Jeremy Gosteau, from Sequans, rejoining the conversation to shut it down at last. “That won’t happen. We see customers who started with LoRa and Sigfox because they thought they would deliver; but many of these IoT applications require large geographical footprints, and so they have felt deceived.”

He adds: “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. And I don’t think the delay has really benefited them.” Powerful stuff, albeit from a partisan crowd.

This article is continued from a previous entry, covering key NB-IoT challenges 1-5 (available here) and key NB-IoT challenges 6-10 (available here). All of these articles are taken from a new report, entitled NB-IoT – what has gone wrong, and when will it go right? The full report is available here. A webinar on the same topic is available here, with panellists from BICS, Sequans, and Nordic Semiconductor. 

verizon nb-iot lte-m
Previous post
Verizon IoT outlook: ‘Pennies to millions, millions to billions’
Next post
IoT outfit u-blox teams up with Softbank on global GNSS, Taoglas on COWBOY ebikes