In 2007, the iPhone revolution threw mobile operators off guard. They simply weren’t prepared for the huge increase in mobile data usage the devices stimulated. The iPhone set the foundation for smartphones to become the consumer’s gateway to the internet, superseding both laptops and desktop PCs. Operators took years to develop the network infrastructure that could support new smartphone data services, which evolved beyond web browsing to online messaging services, mobile video and social media.

Fast forward 10 years and mobile operators are now rapidly trying to prepare for the next disruptive change in the industry – the Internet of Things (IoT). Gartner has predicted that there will be 50 billion connected things by 2020, and mobile operators are working against the clock to develop the network infrastructure to support the data deluge. There is a huge market of opportunity for them to derive revenue from connecting new products and systems. However, new connectivity standards are required to ensure that mobile data is used efficiently, thus avoiding a capacity crunch that could cause their networks to come to a standstill. These new systems not only need to be developed, but also be tested and validated to ensure commercial reliability.

A wide area of opportunity
NarrowBand IoT (NB-IoT), which forms part of the LTE-Advanced Pro (3GPP Release 13) standard, is perhaps the most eagerly-anticipated new protocol to address IoT services and devices. The low power, wide area (LPWA) radio technology is capable of providing reliable coverage, whilst making efficient use of operators’ spectrum assets and network capacity. From an end user device perspective, NB-IoT supports low power consumption and can connect low-cost chipsets needed to drive affordability into end-user devices and systems.

The channel bandwidth of NB-IoT is 200kHz (180kHz plus guard bands), which also makes it suitable for GSM channel re-farming because it allows one GSM/GPRS channel to be replaced with a single NB-IoT channel. This narrow bandwidth makes it possible for LTE networks to accommodate a large number of IoT devices without compromising the performance of regular mobile devices connected to the network.

The standardisation of narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) was completed over a year ago. Give it one more year and we’re likely to see NB-IoT as a primary standard for operators looking to connect IoT devices to their networks. A number of operators have championed NB-IoT in recent years, with R&D including live trials of the connectivity standard. Vodafone for instance completed the first over-the-air connection on a live network using NB-IoT in September last year.

The narrowband of choice
Whilst NB-IoT may be the new LPWA kid on the block, it is not the only narrowband wireless technology which has been earmarked to connect the IoT. LoRa (developed by Semtech, and backed by an industry alliance), and SigFox (backed by a French company of the same name), both use unlicensed spectrum. These technologies require a new network infrastructure to operate, distinct from current cellular infrastructure. Whilst the likes of Vodafone may be backing NB-IoT, other big players seem wary of publicising their commitment to a specific standard. In May this year O2 became the first UK telco to confirm that it will trial 3GPP cellular IoT technology later in the year. However, O2 did not reveal which of the standards it will be using.

NB-IoT’s utilisation of licensed spectrum means it is likely to win out over the other standards-in-development. NB-IoT is backed by 3GPP, and can be seen as a global standard, with the support of a huge existing ecosystem. Mobile operators already have network architectures which support its roll-out, with base stations and infrastructure only needing software upgrades on existing sites.

The support for NB-IoT from many major telcos means that a far greater number of consumers – the customer base of these companies and operators – will also unwittingly be backing the standard. This will motivate manufacturers and other parties to invest in devices and applications which can be supported by NB-IoT, across a diverse range of industries. Use cases may include smart metering by utilities companies, connected personal monitors in the healthcare industry, and intruder alarms in the security industry.

NB-IoT may win out over SigFox and LoRa in many cases, but there is a fourth standard which is here to stay: CAT-M (or LTE-M). This standard supports greater data rates, and thus will support different devices and applications than NB-IoT, meaning operators will be testing and implementing both standards in parallel. CAT-M is able to transmit large chunks of data, and with a maximum data rate of around 100KBps, it will be used for applications that could include smart city applications and smart home energy systems. As with the former standard, CAT-M uses licensed spectrum and can be supported by existing infrastructure, CAT-M and NB-IoT will likely work together hand-in-hand, rather than an either/or situation.

Preparing for future
Operators must ensure their networks are capable of supporting new wireless standards, such as NB-IoT and CAT-M, as well as the millions of IoT devices which will continue to flood the market. VIAVI’ TM500 can test NB-IoT networks at scale, alongside a rich portfolio of LTE and LTE-A capabilities, so that operators can validate both new and existing networks. When used in combination with TeraVM, it offers a complete end-to-end testing system that gives operators a universal view of how their network is coping under the demands of the IoT. VIAVI offers the only solution on the market that can represent individual and unique IoT devices at scale, and ensure that a network will support the addition and variety of new devices which will make up the IoT of the future. Operators must act now to validate their current network performance and also ensure that testing tools also allow them to ready their networks to support tomorrow’s IoT and huge data influx.

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