MWC Shanghai: Chinese operators inject momentum into NB-IoT

The LTE community’s low power wide area network (LPWAN) standard, NB-IoT, has been suffering the usual teething troubles recently – scaled-back deployments after a wave of hype; rumors of interoperability and roaming issues; mobile operators sticking to alternative solutions like LoRa despite the shiny new technology just waiting to be added to their LTE base stations.

But at Mobile World Congress Shanghai last week, in the bosom of the cellular industry, there was nothing but positive vibes about the new standard, with operators round the world talking up their plans, from China to Germany to New Zealand. The GSMA, which runs the MWC series of events, claimed credit, saying these early moves indicated the success of its Mobile IoT Initiative, set up last year to encourage MNOs to adopt 3GPP standard solutions for M2M and IoT services. There are three of those solutions – NB-IoT, LTE-M, and Extended Coverage GSM (lest we forget that the great majority of long distance M2M connections are on 2G).

The GSMA was hailing roll-outs by AT&T, China Mobile, China Unicom, China Telecom, Deutsche Telekom, Verizon and Vodafone – most of them focused on NB-IoT, though the US is more focused than other markets on LTE-M, which supports higher bandwidth applications than its stablemates. There were other operators jumping on the bandwagon too, including Swisscom.

Rival solutions in unlicensed spectrum, such as Sigfox and LoRa, remained the elephant in the room. Clearly, they are the only option for non-spectrum owners, but – like WiFi – may be powerfully deployed by companies such as cablecos. And they remain popular, for their very low power levels and their cost-effective devices, with some MNOs too – SK Telecom, for instance, recently announced a LoRa roaming platform.

However, in the halls of MWC, the elephant was hardly mentioned, and the NB-IoT party rolled on. The most impressive announcements came out of China, whose three operators have the collective power to move the needle for a technology globally. All three have launched NB-IoT networks now – Mobile and Unicom in selected cities, Telecom on a broad basis across the country. Mobile’s first live network is in Yingtan, while Unicom is operating in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Fuzhou, supporting applications such as smart parking, smart fire sensors and smart metering.

The most interesting aspect of the recent Chinese NB-IoT activities is China Telecom’s initiative to develop an open platform on which multiple operators can roam or deliver common services. Mobile services have never taken off big-time without such shared platforms and Telecom, the most active of the Chinese trio in this area, has announced three new partnerships which could be the start of something more international.

It has expanded its alliance with HKT to drive a common IoT platform for customers across mainland China and Hong Kong. The two MNOs will be able to deploy IoT and M2M services on one anothers’ networks, with seamless switching of IoT subscriptions. They will do this by using the same embedded UICCs, supported by the Ericsson Device Connection Platform (DCP).

The third Chinese telco also announced a similar partnership with Telenor Group, to give Telecom’s multinational enterprise customers access to Telenor Connexion’s IoT networks in Europe and Asia, while becoming Connexion’s preferred partner for connectivity in China. And a similar deal with Orange Business Services will enable both operators to serve their respective enterprise customers through a combined footprint across three continents – Asia, Europe and Africa – while also cooperating on new service development.

Such bilateral deals are only a start towards a global mobile IoT network, of course, but 2G roaming begun the same way, and if more alliances are formed, it will be a logical step towards a more federated approach based on GSMA specs.

However, the impetus for that will require more generalized progress on wide-scale NB-IoT networks, and so far only the early signs are visible outside China. In Europe, Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom, despite being cheerleaders for NB-IoT, have recently been seen to slow their roll-out schedules somewhat amid reports of some interoperability hiccups as they moved between different releases of the technology.

However, Vodafone has now gone commercial in Spain and The Netherlands, and says any teething troubles have been addressed, while DT has launched, only slightly behind schedule, in several German cities, which join its national roll-out in the Netherlands. The German telco also said: “Greece, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Slovakia and Croatia are also preparing to introduce NB-IoT. In the US, T-Mobile plans to support NB-IoT from 2018 onwards.”

“It is clear that the market sees the benefit of adopting solutions that offer flexibility, security, lower costs, and cover all use cases, and we look forward to seeing other operators follow in the near future,” said Alex Sinclair, GSMA’s CTO, as he announced that the Mobile IoT Innovators programme, which is designed to encourage the development of new LPWAN solutions, has reached over 500 members.

This is the power of the GSMA, to create an ecosystem rapidly by tapping into the huge installed base of cellular technologies – something the unlicensed LPWAN supporters’ clubs, like LoRa Alliance, cannot emulate. The enthusiasm of China only accentuates that effect, and that country is already leading the way in LPWANs. According to Gartner research, China will account for 486m of an estimated 3.1bn LPWAN connections by 2025, and is already driving commercial launches and new solutions. Of 546 companies currently developing new solutions under the GSMA Mobile IoT program, more than 215 are from China.

These moves should start to drive scale into the sector and address the main sticking point for NB-IoT, its relatively expensive device modules. Only a few weeks ago, one of DT’s senior product managers for M2M, Jens Olejak, told the LPWAN Summit conference in London: “To be honest, there are still no big tenders yet for NB-IoT. The module costs still between €10 and €15 rather than the €5 we are looking at and so no customer is doing a serious commercial tender.”

In Shanghai, DT did not comment on this issue, but did detail prices of its initial German services. There, is is offering a simple connectivity package called NB-IoT Access, as well as broader deal which also includes device and data management, called ‘NB-IoT and Cloud of Things’. The former costs about €199 ($223) for a six-month period covering up to 25 SIM cards with 500KB per SIM. The broader package costs €299 ($335) for the same timescale/devices.

DT said it would be introducing NB-IoT-based smart parking services in the cities of Darmstadt, Duisburg, Dortmund, Hamburg, Merzig and Moers.

Across the border in Switzerland, incumbent Swisscom will launch both NB-IoT and LTE-M next year, to supplement its existing LoRa deployment, which is targeted to cover 90% of the population by the end of 2017.

And on the other side of the world, New Zealand’s two largest MNOs, Vodafone and Spark Wireless, both announced plans to roll out LPWANs. Vodafone will deploy NB-IoT, in line with its global parent’s policy, in early 2018 and has already been testing the system with Nokia since 2016. It will run pilots this year with a select group of business users. Vodafone NZ already has more than 1.4m connected devices operating on its 2G network.

But Spark will use LoRa. Its GM for IoT, Michael Stribling, said the network will be designed by Kordia and deployed by LoRa platform provider Actility. Spark plans to deploy NB-IoT and LTE-M further down the road, and he said: “We believe there are different use cases emerging for different IoT networks, depending on the level and type of data that needs to be transmitted by IoT devices.”

Both should have a good market to play for. IDC analysts recently concluded that
New Zealand will be Asia-Pacific’s third most mature market in terms of IoT units per capita by 2020, with the agricultural sector a key growth driver.

Verizon and Unicom demonstrate M2M voice:

Verizon has carried out a live Voice over LTE (VoLTE) call over its new LTE-M machine-to-machine network. Voice might not be the obvious killer app for IoT networks, but the operator said there are use cases “such as alarm panels and medical alert systems” where it adds to functionality and responsiveness if the machines can speak.

In its trial, Verizon used a Qualcomm MSM9206 multimode LTE modem on its Ericsson LTE network, with applications enabled by the operator’s ThingSpace IoT development platform.

At Mobile World Congress Shanghai, China Unicom as also demonstrating VoLTE over an M2M connection, in this case LTE Cat-M1, also working with Ericsson and Qualcomm. The companies showed off two use cases – a fire alarm trigger panel and a GPS emergency tracking device.

Guanglu Shao, an SVP at Unicom, said the operator “aims to drive the development of the IoT and accelerate cellular network development and large scale business implementation by constructing the leading 4G FDD network. We launched NB-IoT on a pre-commercial basis on May 12 in Shanghai. This cooperation on eMTC with Ericsson and Qualcomm is a new venture intended to boost social intelligence and the Internet of Everything through wide cooperation and the construction of leading networks.”

The companies established a point-to-point Cat-M1 VoLTE call using Meitrack P99 GPS tracking devices powered by Qualcomm MDM9206 multimode LTE IoT modems.

MulteFire Alliance shifts its gaze to LPWAN:

The lines between licensed and unlicensed spectrum are blurring in mobile broadband, as LTE moves into licence-exempt airwaves, and mobile operators integrate WiFi and cellular connections in the same core. In the machine-to-machine space, the stand-off between LTE-based NB-IoT, and licence exempt solutions like LoRa, remains in place. But that will change as the MulteFire Alliance looks to extend its technology – which allows LTE to run in unlicensed spectrum without a licensed host network – to the IoT.

According to Hao Xu, a principal engineer at Qualcomm, which spearheaded MulteFire, the Alliance is now adapting NB-IoT to “operate in the unlicensed spectrum to expand beyond mobile broadband and high performance IoT supported by MulteFire 1.0”.

He added, in a blog post: “This will in turn bring new opportunities for private LTE networks and enable LPWA use cases.”

The LoRa Alliance was unfazed by the potential rival in licence exempt band. Alper Yegin, co-chair of the Alliance’s technical committee, told FierceWireless: “It is one more proof that use of unlicensed frequencies is not only feasible but also very valuable for low cost and scalable IoT networks. On the other hand, having super-efficient over-the-air protocols is a key success factor due to usage constraints stemming from regulatory rules on these bands. Using protocols that are designed ground-up with these constraints in mind is essential. That is where the next challenge is awaiting 3GPP when they continue trimming their legacy complex protocols stacks to fit the new use.”