Demystifying NB-IoT and mobile IoT as the next big thing for enterprise growth.

27 September 2018

First coined in 1999 to denote always-connected devices, the Internet of Things (IoT) has matured from a concept into scores of practical implementations that have rapidly gained traction around the world. By 2020, the technology’s impact on the global economy will reach 4.5 trillion dollars by 2020, according to PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

In Singapore, an ambitious project is currently underway to equip more than one hundred thousand lamp posts with a variety of wireless sensors, while a growing plethora of consumer-centric IoT devices such as IP cameras, smart door locks and scores of connected appliances are currently available for purchase.


IoT Connectivity

Equipped with a smattering of processing capabilities and sensors, the bedrock of an IoT device rests on its inherent ability to connect to the Internet. This is also where the confusion often starts. As with any cutting-edge or nascent technology, the connectivity solutions for enabling this are many and highly fragmented.

These run the gamut from standard Wi-Fi networking to specialised RF (Radio Frequency) technologies such as SigFox, Silver Spring Network, Ingenu and ZigBee. Yet others may tap onto traditional 3G or 4G mobile networks for connectivity, particularly for IoT deployments at remote or isolated locations.

Unfortunately, many of these wireless standards are incompatible with each other and are not cost-effective to implement together on the same IoT device. And despite many of the non-mobile network technologies being around for 10 years or more, they continue to grapple with shortcomings such as poor reliability, legacy security, as well as high operational and maintenance costs.

While the ideal connectivity option obviously depends on factors such as technology readiness and suitability for the task at hand, a new wave of mobile technology designed specifically to support IoT looks set to change the situation. Created as part of an industry-wide effort, two noteworthy technologies on the mobile front are Long Term Evolution for Machines, or LTE-M, and NarrowBand Internet of Things, also known as NB-IoT.


Why Mobile IoT

Of note would be NB-IoT, which significantly improves the power consumption of user devices even as it offers more efficient spectrum usage. Designed for low bandwidth and infrequent communication, NB-IoT offers ubiquitous coverage over both wide-open areas and coverage indoors. And with up to 10 years of battery life achievable, the cost economics of maintaining IoT devices is also completely transformed.

Moreover, the absence of high-cost components promises lower-cost devices that will allow NB-IoT to come up ahead. Indeed, the initial cost of the NB-IoT modules is expected to be comparable to that of legacy GSM/GPRS devices, despite the former’s added advantage such as support for high connectivity density and power-sipping design. Thanks to the simplicity of the underlying technology, the cost of NB-IoT is expected to decrease even further as demand increases, says GSMA.

Under the hood, the NB-IoT incorporates cutting-edge security and privacy features expected of mobile networks. This includes support for user identity confidentiality, data integrity, and secure end-to-end NB-IoT data protection. Advanced capabilities such as encryption key derivation and management are also built right in, eliminating weak spots stemming from wrongly implemented encryption routines.



The future of NB-IoT

For now, NB-IoT is currently making rapid inroads with many large-scale or high-profile trials around the globe. Its plug-and-play design makes it easy to bestow even traditional systems such as utility metering with “smart” tracking capabilities, while low-cost modules and the ability to link tens of thousands of devices through a single mobile cell makes the upgrading of existing meters achievable.

Already, NB-IoT is used in smart farming or precision agriculture in Norway. Sensors attached to a sprinkler offers invaluable data to irrigation monitoring systems by sending a regular stream of data on location and system pressure. To capture anomalous events, alerts are triggered if pressure levels move outside designated parameters. Another trial project envisions connected tracking modules placed on a thousand sheep put out to graze, allowing for the tracking of animals and their well-being.

In the Asia Pacific region, trials are done in China with NB-IoT sensors in Smart Cities deployments that include parking, congestion management and air quality monitoring. And in the world’s most populous nation, IoT is also enabling the potential mitigation of disasters with water level monitoring along its meandering, flood-prone rivers.



Widespread and rapid rollouts based on adherence to 3GPP standards offers the added advantage of interoperability and longevity. This encourages the development of new IoT devices that are based on mobile standards, and in turn reinforces the value proposition of telecommunicator operators to push ahead with support for NB-IoT.

While deployment choices ultimately depend on exact use cases as well as the technology readiness of device manufacturer and mobile IoT coverage, momentum is picking up. Today, telecom operators that are already performing trials of 5G networks and deploy NB-IoT networks.

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