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22 July 2019

In the USA, cities and private networks start to drive NB-IoT

Some of the claims made for cellular Internet of Things (IoT) technologies and services have been overblown, and many MNOs are struggling with the business case. However, the 4G-based NB-IoT and Cat-M standards do allow them to deploy machine-to-machine networks on existing 4G infrastructure, achieving wide coverage and low power consumption for applications like asset tracking. As large operators start to scale up their roll-outs, some interesting use cases and business models are emerging, which over time will drive greater confidence.

Many of these relate to smart city projects, and in the past week, two US case studies have emerged in this area. The first is all about trash. Sensoneo’s first commercial NB-IoT deployment in North America uses T-Mobile’s nationwide NB-IoT LTE network and Twilio’s SIM cards to control smart sensors that sit inside dumpsters in cities across Colorado, Ohio and California.

Michael Basila, CEO and founder of Sensoneo, which has launched the IoT project, says the sensor sends out 53 bytes per data transmission and the low power system’s battery lasts for years. “The monitor has to survive in the dumpster … You don’t want to change the battery every year,” he remarked.

Sensoneo’s Smart Waste Management solution monitors waste levels, pick-up status of each bin, and the real time temperature changes in bins. The company provides apps for the operators, drivers and citizens to manage the trash and report any garbage-related problems.

Basila says that one of the features of NB-IoT is it has “very good signal coverage” – the narrowband signal can handle even underground connections, like those that Sensoneo manages in Prague, Czech Republic. He also likes the pricing of NB-IoT, claiming it is “10 times better” than previous cellular M2M offerings based on GPRS.

Basila believes that NB-IoT will form the backbone of Sensoneo’s business over the coming years. He also sees opportunities for 5G in IoT, but more in applications with higher data volumes like security video cameras.

Slovakia-based Sensoneo’s waste management is deployed in 40 countries around the world. The company supports other low-power connections such as SigFox and 2G.

T-Mobile was the first US carrier to launch its nationwide NB-IoT LTE service in July 2018. This is the first commercial deployment to use Twilio SIM cards.

In San Francisco, a company called Puloli claims to have launched the world’s first private NB-IoT network, in a 700 MHz deployment in Florida that is aimed at utilities and infrastructure providers. Aiming to support a network-as-a-service model, Puloli is now going head-to-head with the unlicensed LPWAN camp, using just a 2 MHz spectrum allocation.

The network went live in June, and is notably not using the conventional guard-band model for deployment, in which MNOs put their NB-IoT signals in the guard-band gaps between their other LTE bands, so as not to have to reduce full-fat LTE coverage. Instead, Puloli has an FCC license to use part of the Upper 700 MHz A Block, specifically a 2 MHz paired slice split between the downlink and uplink.

Puloli isn’t the only such licence holder – there are 21 similar licences in this band that are held by critical infrastructure organizations, spanning utilities, oil and gas, and rail operators. Puloli worked with Select Spectrum, a spectrum rights marketing and consulting firm that also offers FCC licences, to launch the Floridian network, which Puloli is positioning as one of the most capital-efficient approaches for utilities and infrastructure providers.

There were concerns that the guard-band approach could interfere with the neighboring LTE bands, which have not been fully addressed. MNOs are largely playing it safe by using guard-bands instead of dedicated channels – which reflects the efficiency of NB-IoT, but also, possibly, that there is limited revenue potential in IoT services and so the main channels are better dedicated to more lucrative LTE variants.

This ambivalence by MNOs could be a benefit for Unlicensed LPWAN vendors and operators, and any other firms that want to take Puloli’s private cellular approach.

There is a different dynamic at play in the Licensed LPWAN space than in most private LTE environments. In a broadband scenario, enterprises usually consider a private network because of the high cost of paying the MNO to move all their data. In L-LPWAN, both the connectivity costs and the amount of data being transferred are significantly lower, and so there’s less justification for investing in a private network.

The main driver for L-LPWAN is coverage. If the local MNO shows no or slow interest in deploying NB-IoT, then an enterprise might turn to a company like Puloli. However, those companies are going to be competing against the rest of the U-LPWAN community, and so LoRaWAN, Sigfox and Wi-SUN come into play.

For use cases like raw material extraction and industrial facilities, where the size of the complex is against using WiFi but still local enough that the data traffic is not going regional or national, private LTE has become very interesting. Paying an MNO on a per-megabyte basis to pull raw telematics from a machine and have the data immediately sent to a controller does not work. But with a private LTE network, operating in spectrum the industry owns or can use freely, such as the CBRS band, the business case might add up very nicely.

Wi-SUN is very strong in the utilities sector, especially in electrical deployments, while LoRaWAN has racked up wins in water and gas. Sigfox is being used for metering too, but in China, NB-IoT has proved very popular in metering – thanks largely to government support via subsidized costs and deployment mandates.

Puloli’s co-founders, Kethees Ketheesan and Kevin Koehler, have backgrounds spanning Newfield Wireless, NetScout, Marvell, Motorola, SOMA Networks and Tektronix. Founded in 2016, the company raised a seed round of funding and still has only four staff. Modules from Pycom are being used initially, which are powered by Sequans’ Monarch chipsets.

“Puloli’s software-defined solution combined with our deep domain expertise in NB-IoT enabled us to do a rapid development, network design, and deployment in a very short order,” said Ketheesan. “Our solution is truly a full turn-key end-to-end solution. Our customers do not have to go to another entity for system integration. Puloli takes care of all aspects of the service from remote units to network to service activation.

“Existing 700 MHz radio suppliers provide a wide range of high quality and high throughput solutions for critical infrastructure,” said Robert Finch, president of Select Spectrum. “We also saw a need for the long range, low power, long battery life, and low cost remotes available through the cellular industry’s 3GPP NB-IoT standard, and we are very pleased with the results of Puloli’s development.”