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NB-IoT and MulteFire will assure LTE’s long life, as will 5G-class latency

Despite the excitement about 5G trials and use cases, most operators expect LTE to have a continued life of at least a decade – not as a legacy network but as one which is continually being enhanced, and increasingly integrated with 5G and with other radio networks.

There are particular areas where 5G will not provide an upgrade for current LTE technology until Release 16 (to be finalized early next year) or even later. These include unlicensed spectrum (a work item just being kicked off by Qualcomm); a low power variant to succeed NB-IoT and LTE-M; and the extremely low latency which, for some industrial and IoT applications, is seen as the chief differentiator of 5G.

These three are all important because they show how LTE has been forced to expand beyond its initial focus on mobile broadband, to address vertical and IoT use cases with different network requirements – low power and low latency rather than high data rates. They also show how LTE has started to address new business models. When running in unlicensed spectrum, especially without a licensed spectrum anchor (MulteFire will allow this), LTE can be adopted by non-MNOs, potentially lowering barriers to new providers and to private networks for vertical sectors (a prominent MWC discussion this year).

Most operators remain fixated on mobile broadband, and so the first 5G standards will support their need to boost speeds and quality of service while reducing costs. But for a service provider focused on vertical markets, IoT or ultra-low latency services like virtual reality, first generation 5G would represent a step backwards from what the latest LTE releases can offer.

For instance, tests by Huawei and NetEase, described at MWC, show how latency can be reduced to 2ms on LTE (and very few operators have found a genuine commercial use case that requires sub-1ms). Researchers at the two companies jointly completed an LTE latency test at Huawei Lab for online games, harnessing new specifications from the last LTE release, 3GPP Release 15, notably Short TTI. This reduced latency over the air interfaces from 20ms on conventional LTE to 2ms, and average end-to-end latency was down by over 30% to 33ms.

As for NB-IoT, there were plenty of operator and industry announcements to indicate that it has a long life ahead (not to mention vertical industries, such as manufacturing, which are just in the process of implementing the technology for its low power credentials, and are unlikely to want to make a radio upgrade for many years to come).

Low power WANs, whether cellular or in unlicensed spectrum, will be the world’s fastest growing connectivity technology between now and 2025, supporting 4bn IoT devices by that date, according to ABI Research.

One notable NB-IoT announcement came from Vodafone and China Mobile. They signed an agreement to resell one another’s IoT services. Vodafone customers will be able to access China Mobile IoT SIMS for deployment in China, while the Chinese MNO’s customers can use Vodafone’s Global IoT SIM and Management platform.

“Having reached over 200m IoT connections last year, China Mobile’s target is to increase the number of connections by 60% in 2018,” said the operator’s head of mobile business partnerships, Dorothy Lin.

China Mobile said it has launched NB-IoT networks in 346 cities using chipsets from five companies — Huawei, Mediatek, Qualcomm, RDA and ZTE – and has approved 15 NB-IoT modules for its network so far.

Meanwhile, several chipmakers announced progress in NB-IoT, which has been eagerly adopted by some operators like Vodafone, to see off the potential threat from non-MNOs armed with unlicensed spectrum alternatives such as LoRa:

  • Modem maker Sequans announced its first chip optimized for NB-IoT, Monarch N, a single chip which reduces size and cost compared to its existing dual-mode chip, enabling modules smaller than 10 mm2 to serve markets like industrial sensors and guard band deployments. The firm also announced the SQN3410, its first product with a programmable RF block.
  • Start-up Riot Micro demonstrated a dual-mode (NB-IoT/LTE-M1) network, partnering with disruptive telco software vendor Amarisoft (one of the start-ups being incubated by Orange under the Telecom Infra Project program). The network used the Riot RM1000 chip and Amarisoft’s Amari LTE 100 software.
  • Chinese controller and sensor maker Goodix said it would offer NB-IoT chips, using IP from its acquisition of Germany’s CommSolid.
  • Cisco reported on trials with China Unicom of an NB-IoT management system from its Jasper IoT subsidiary, the Control Center for NB-IoT. This automates management for a wide range of applications such as agriculture, smart metering, parking and fire control. “We expect to have more than 100m NB-IoT connections on our network by 2020,” said Xiaotian Chen, general manager of China Unicom’s IoT group.
  • Qorvo announced a portfolio of nine low-band RF chips for IoT networks (cellular or otherwise), spanning bands from 50 MHz to 4,200 MHz.
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