Vodafone steps up NB-IoT trials ahead of 2017 launch

Vodafone said narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) could be one of the fastest rollouts of new technology that it has ever completed as it continues to upgrade its core and radio network ahead of a planned commercial launch in several markets during 2017.

In a blog post Luke Ibbetson, director of research and development at the Vodafone Group and chair of the NB-IoT Forum, said the operator has made "significant progress" with the low power wide area (LPWA) network technology over the past six months.

NB-IoT is a cellular-based LPWA connectivity option for the Internet of Things (IoT) that falls under the 3GPP standardisation umbrella. Vodafone said it expects the full 3GPP standard to be released imminently. Proprietary technologies such as Sigfox, Ingenu's RPMA and LoRaWAN have also made clear their ambitions to become globally available standards for public LPWA networks using unlicensed spectrum.

While a number of operators such as Orange, which is now rolling out a LoRaWAN network in France, are deploying proprietary technologies that could complement their future cellular-based IoT networks, Vodafone appears to have firmly thrown its hat in the NB-IoT arena.

Ibbetson said key attractions of NB-IoT include its use of licensed as opposed to unlicensed spectrum; its ability to support two-way communication; the use of existing network infrastructure, allowing rapid upgrades; the fact that the technology is based on open standards; and the broad support from a wide range of service providers and vendors.

"As we move towards commercial deployment, we will work with the industry to provide developers and engineers with the support they need to bring their products to market," Ibbetson said, noting that the NB-IoT open labs programme will play an important role here. Vodafone and Huawei teamed up to open the first lab in the UK in April.

Vodafone has carried out a number of technology trials in the last 12 months. These include the use of pre-standard NB-IoT sensors in Turkey and Spain to connect sensors in a car park that tell drivers using a smartphone application exactly where to find a parking space. In Spain, the technology was also used to connect water meters located in hard to reach locations.

"Over the coming months we will continue to test the technology, conduct new trials, and expand existing ones. For example, we are already planning to conduct a broader field trial later this year with the Spanish water company Aguas de Valencia," Ibbetson added.

He noted that a large proportion of Vodafone's network hardware only requires a software upgrade to support the technology.

"We estimate that 85 per cent of our base stations will be able to support NB-IoT with a straight-forward software upgrade. However, in some markets, such as the Netherlands, the figure rises to 95 per cent," he said.

Vodafone announced in May that it plans to launch NB-IoT in "multiple markets" in 2017, and called on the industry to focus on trials that would enable customers to quickly add the technology to their products.

For more:
- see the Vodafone blog

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