Vodafone unveils first markets for NB-IoT launch in 2017

internet of things
Vodafone plans to use NB-IoT to support a new range of connected, low power devices

Vodafone said it would launch its first narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) networks in Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and Spain in the first quarter of 2017, and also claimed it would be the first operator globally to launch low power wide area (LPWA) networks based on the newly minted 3GPP standard.

In June, the 3GPP said it had completed the standardisation of NB-IoT, which forms part of Release 13 for LTE Advanced Pro networks. The standards body noted that mobile operators could now use NB-IoT, eMTC and EC-GSM-IoT technologies to address the Internet of Things (IoT) market.

Aapo Markkanen, principal analyst at Machina Research, said the latest announcement from Vodafone is a positive sign for NB-IoT, which is also referred to as Cat-NB1.

“What I will be looking at next is the availability of compatible hardware. For an IoT developer, having a network is one thing, and having the right sorts of chipsets and modules is another. The first wave of these will start becoming available during 2017, but pretty much every supplier I’ve been talking about is expecting the volumes to be relatively modest for the first couple of years,” Markkanen said.

Vodafone has made no secret of the fact that it intends to focus on NB-IoT, and has tended to shun other LPWA technologies on the market such as LoRa and Sigfox. Its reasoning is that NB-IoT is a cellular-based standard that uses licensed rather than unlicensed spectrum, and falls under the 3GPP standardisation umbrella.

Markkanen said he thinks there is enough strategic space for the non-3GPP LPWA technologies in the long run.

“The addressable market for them won’t be nearly as big as it would be without the 3GPP standards -- i.e. Cat-NB1 and Cat-M1 -- in play, but a couple of them are likely to gain enough critical mass. The IoT is such a vast and diverse space of different devices and applications that we’re bound to see some degree of technological fragmentation,” he said.

Vodafone completed its first NB-IoT trial with Huawei in September, using a 4G base station supporting NB-IoT technology and 800 MHz spectrum.

It is now clearly ready to take the next step, noting that it expects to implement the LPWA technology in all Vodafone markets by 2020. The operator also stressed that the rollout of NB-IoT is a relatively simple process, involving a software upgrade to existing 4G base stations.

“This means that the rollout will be rapid and will deliver nationwide coverage almost immediately,” Vodafone said in an emailed statement.

It clearly has high ambitions for what NB-IoT will bring, noting that the technology provides connectivity for devices that require very low power levels and thus have long battery lives. That in turn will enable companies to consider connecting devices that would not have been viable with existing technologies, both from cost and battery perspectives.

Vodafone’s director of Internet of Things, Ivo Rook, said: “The questions of battery life and deep in-building penetration have now been answered by NB-IoT. The low cost of the modules means we can expect a new wave of connected devices and soaring market demand.”