Huawei announces NB-IoT improvements, 2x cell-site coverage

Network infrastructure provider Huawei has announced eRAN13.1, which it claims is the first Release 14-based system for NB-IoT on the market. If it performance claims are true, this will provide a very big step forward for NB-IoT adopters, which are often hampered by their relative lack of LTE penetration, compared to their legacy 2G networks.

Riot has long maintained that there’s a serious chicken-or-egg problem for LTE-M and NB-IoT, in that they are confined to the existing LTE network footprint. The claims of how easy it is to upgrade LTE infrastructure to support the new protocols are a moot point, if the network operator is not subsequently planning on expanding that footprint.

As such, we have taken a dim view on those pushing LTE-M and NB-IoT for rural applications, as LTE coverage tends to deteriorate significantly once outside of urban areas – where those high-value smartphones tend to congregate. But in order to incentivize the operator to invest in turning its rural 2G and 3G networks in LTE, there has to be a clear business model – and this is where gallus gallus domesticus and the shelled incubation system come into play.

From a pure ROI perspective, we estimate that most rural cell site upgrades to support NB-IoT and LTE-M are not going to pay off – when viewing the connectivity revenue that they would ‘collect’ during their life. Now, that’s admittedly not the correct way to view such things, as ‘national’ coverage could net some very lucrative contracts that would cover such costs in time, but the point still stands – there’s not much enthusiasm for rolling out licensed cellular coverage to the sticks, as there’s not much potential revenue out there now and future growth seems slow.

That latter point is especially true when Farmer John could glue a LoRa gateway on the side of his barn and get good private network coverage – either independently or through a specialist provider. Similarly, a national LoRa or Sigfox operator has a much lower investment to provide sufficient LPWAN data coverage for many of these rural applications, compared to the MNO’s cost – as the hardware alone is so much cheaper.

But if Huawei’s performance claims are true, then the hill that the MNO has to climb has suddenly got a lot smaller. If every LTE cell site suddenly doubles in diameter, then the coverage should improve dramatically. In turn, this could allow the MNO to upgrade fewer cites to achieve sufficient NB-IoT or LTE-M coverage.

Huawei is currently claiming a 7x improvement in peak uplink speeds and single-user downlink, reaching 157kbps and 102kbps respectively. Both cell capacity and cell coverage have apparently doubled, with the system now supporting 80,000 devices per cell. Huawei says its proprietary uplink channel estimation technology is responsible for improving the cell coverage.

The other big improvement, according to Huawei, is that it can now provide GPS-free location services. It claims that the system can provide positional accuracy of 50 meters, at around half the power requirements and latency of a GPS system. Asset tracking, logistics, and pet tracking are cited as prime potential applications.

Huawei argues that the first generation of NB-IoT can’t meet the ‘high requirements of a number of IoT applications in fast-growing markets.’ That generation is based on the Release 13 3GPP specification, and so the new Release 14 standard has facilitated the new option for MNOs. Huawei says that there are 10m NB-IoT devices out in the wild today, on 45 commercial NB-IoT networks, which are powered by over 500,000 NB-IoT base stations.

So Huawei will be looking to drum up interest in its new RAN offering, which comprises the hardware in the base station as well as the core network and back-end software too. It already has a strong market position to leverage, with lots of existing customers to upsell the system too. As so many MNOs are interested in the new licensed LPWAN options, NB-IoT is particularly interesting from a 2G replacement perspective – with LTE-M more suited to providing voice and tracking more comparable with 3G.

The company cites spectrum refarming as another pressure, where the MNO will want to convert 2G and 3G spectrum into more lucrative LTE and later 5G spectrum. 2G in particular is not very spectrally efficient, and so MNOs who want to refarm it will have to first migrate the 2G M2M devices onto LTE. Huawei, and many others, would argue that NB-IoT is the best choice for this.

Of course, Huawei is the major advocate for NB-IoT, given that the LPWAN tech essentially emerged from its own labs – via its acquisition of Neul. Its HiSilicon subsidiary is also a major supplier of NB-IoT chipsets, and so the company is pretty relentless in singing the praises of NB-IoT.

Chen Chuanfei, VP of Huawei’s LTE Product Line, said “global operators have reached a consensus that networks providing a full range of services will be developed over the next upcoming years. IoT will become the best practice for operators pursuing the development of vertical industries. The newly released 3GPP R14-based commercial NB-IoT solution can improve the performance of NB-IoT networks in data rates, cell capacity and cell coverage, expand the potential scope of application for NB-IoT through location services. In 2018, Huawei promises to improve network performance, build ecosystems, and explore businesses with the help of NB-IoT open labs and local industry alliances. Together with operators and partners, we will unveil a glorious golden era of large-scale commercial deployment of IoT.”