Across the enterprise world, it is unlikely that there is a process or a task that cannot be improved through enhanced connectivity. Maintaining a connected infrastructure involves creating and maintaining an Internet of Things (IoT) that keeps ‘things’ running smoothly. From manufacturing to logistics, from utilities to inventory management and tracking, through to remote monitoring of medical devices, security systems, home appliances – the market opportunities are limitless.

For opportunities to be realized across the ecosystem, two things are required. First, the availability of cellular networks, connecting all the devices needed to transmit and receive the data. Second, unity and cohesion between the different members of the ecosystem.

Cellular networks – 2G, 3G,4G – have so far been the default cellular bearers. However, the number of devices to be connected for IoT use cases are considerably higher than the number supported by current networks. Those newly connected devices are power and resource-constrained. As such, using these types of mobile networks will have limited success for large scale deployments. In some cases, those technologies cannot provide the deep indoor and underground coverage that some IoT use cases require. Billing, too, is a matter of consideration. How do you distinguish connected human subscribers from sensor devices on the same network, for example? Defining monetizable business cases, for mobile operators and customers, is problematic.

Wide-ranging benefits of Narrowband IoT

This is where the Narrowband Internet of Things – NB-IoT – comes in. Built on the internationally recognized 3GPP standards, NB-IoT is a secure, low power, wide-area data network technology. It gives both system and spectral efficiency and can support connected device battery life of up to 10 years across myriad use cases. Being a 3GPP standard is crucial. When a customer commits to a massive international deployment, 3GPP standardization provides a guarantee that the technology will be available in any country worldwide.

So, with those benefits, why isn’t NB-IoT delivering ubiquitous connectivity around the globe? 

This is a relatively new market, and as such, it is also a very fragmented market. With multiple use cases and different ways of implementing and benefiting from the NB-IoT capabilities, each target customer needs to understand its potential. There also needs to be far greater collaboration and cooperation between the different stakeholders in the ecosystem.

A solid ecosystem of stakeholders

Catalyzing the NB-IoT market requires a strong, cooperative ecosystem so all can benefit across the value chain. To achieve this, several issues must be addressed. These include a lack of alignment between manufacturers’ and operators’ timescales. 

It takes two or three years for manufacturers to get devices to market. Before they commit to the financial and time investment, however, they need to be sure that when products are launched, there is adequate global network coverage. Yet operators are hesitant to invest in providing that coverage when there is only a low volume of devices currently in the market that require it. It’s the classic chicken and egg scenario.

There is also the international element. For NB-IoT networks to work seamlessly across national borders, the complex mobile roaming environment needs to be addressed. Manufacturers and operators need to ensure that devices are allowed to connect to networks wherever in the world they are. While 3GPP standards ensure that connections work on a technical level, the process is far from simple in terms of back-office management. Traditionally, it requires the establishment of multiple bilateral agreements to ensure fairly apportioned revenue. Transparency of network traffic is also a requirement. Where is the traffic coming from – where is it going? The operator needs this information to monetize the service – if it’s using their network, they want a return. 

Carriers: the glue of the NB-IoT ecosystem

Carriers can play a critical role here as enablers of the NB-IoT network. By establishing relationships with different stakeholders, carriers can understand their individual expectations and provide the organizational link between module makers, manufacturers, operators, and end-users. 

Add to this the provision of out-of-the-box SIMs that enables instant connection for devices, plus a platform for enterprises to manage those devices, and the market begins to take shape.

Manufacturers, enterprises in vertical sectors, operators, and carriers must work together to ensure that Narrowband IoT as a standard is developed, connectivity is deployed globally, and a reliable, consistent end-user experience is delivered. Carriers can act as facilitators and the glue that binds the different elements of this fledgling market together. 

We can help to build a closer relationship between stakeholders and strengthen their co-operation to ensure that demand for devices and coverage are aligned. This will make it worthwhile for all parties to invest in NB-IoT. Once there is a commitment from across the ecosystem, the momentum will follow. NB-IoT has the potential to transform enterprise operations – we need to build the support to help deliver that transformation.

About The Author

Fernando Llobregat is an EV contributor. He currently heads the Enterprise IoT, BICS.