Exclusive Interview: China Mobile Mobilises IoT Innovation

China Mobile Mobilises IoT Innovation

How China Mobile is using open labs, developer tools and field trials to hone the Mobile Internet of Things


With approximately 1.5 million LTE base stations across China, China Mobile operates one of the world’s largest 4G networks. It is now adapting that huge network to support Mobile Internet of Things (Mobile IoT) solutions. By upgrading its base stations to support NB-IoT technology, China Mobile plans to provide low power wide area connectivity for a wide range of consumer and enterprise applications.

At the same time, China Mobile is building an ecosystem to support the development of compatible equipment and applications than can harness the full potential of the Mobile IoT. A new open IoT lab in Beijing is designed to enable enterprise partners and equipment vendors to develop and test new Mobile IoT products and applications. The operator is also running several live pilots of Mobile IoT applications, including smart parking and water quality monitoring services, to evaluate the potential of the technologies and explore the related business case.

Since standards body 3GPP published the NB-IoT and LTE-M standards in Release 13 in June 2016, China Mobile has been working with enterprises and industry vendors to test the capabilities of the new technologies. Some 68 enterprises have become joint innovation partners of China Mobile’s open IoT lab in Beijing, while 47 equipment and software providers are members. China Mobile has also established satellite labs in four other cities, Chengdu, Giangdao, Shanghai and Shenzhen, which enable the operator’s partners to remotely access the core network in Beijing.


End-to-end development and testing

The Beijing lab is designed to enable China Mobile’s partners to develop and test their concepts and solutions on fully 3GPP-compliant NB-IoT and LTE-M network equipment.  Partners can use the lab to test VoLTE (voice over LTE), eDRX (extended discontinuous reception) and PSM (power saving mode) technologies in the radio network and IPv4 and IPv6 applications in the core network, together with communications and power tests for devices.

The lab supports radio testing of NB-IoT in standalone spectrum, as well as in bands used by existing cellular networks and guard bands. China Mobile says it has verified that NB-IoT can deliver a coverage extension of 20dB over conventional cellular networks. Moreover, China Mobile’s testing has shown that NB-IoT signals can be delivered underground, allowing subterranean devices to be connected to the network. That means, for example, that a utility meter in a basement could use NB-IoT to transmit regular readings to an energy or water provider.

Partners can use the open IoT labs to test SMS and non-IP communications, as well as IP-based communications, via NB-IoT. The lab also supports interoperability testing of the S1 interface between the radio and core network, as well as the Uu interface between radio network and user equipment.

China Mobile has made available software development kits (SDKs) for both Mobile IoT devices and for the service stack. The operator enables developers to collect data from the connected devices in data hubs and then perform data mining to support their applications. China Mobile has also developed an IoT Open Platform, which supports different kinds of connectivity and various types of sensors and intelligent hardware, supplemented by big data services. The platform includes a range of APIs and application templates to support industrial hardware development.

Although China Mobile hasn’t yet run events where developers can interact face-to-face with its partners and equipment makers, it plans to do so in future. The operator may hold a launch event in one of the 5G joint innovation labs during 2017 once the LWPA technologies are sufficiently mature and modules are readily available.

The Open IoT lab can also be used to certify chips, modules, network equipment and applications with China Mobile. Huawei, for example, has undertaken system function and performance verification tests through the China Mobile Research Institute, which has a reputation for being authoritative and rigorously following the 3GPP requirements.  The tests cover the physical layer, MAC layer, RLC layer, RRC layer, and system configurations. Moreover, Ericsson and Qualcomm used China Mobile Research Institute’s labs to complete China’s first end-to-end data call using LTE-M in November 2016.


New ideas, new markets

As Mobile IoT technologies mature, China Mobile and its partners are increasingly testing new concepts in the field in commercial settings. In September 2016, for example, the China Mobile Research Institute worked with Huawei and PolyCIS to perform NB-IoT-based environment monitoring at the Zhundong oil field of CNPC Xinjiang.  Moreover, China Mobile and Huawei jointly deployed a NB-IoT network to enable a smart parking service at the 2016 World Internet of Things Exposition (WIOT) held in Wuxi, China. By employing NB-IoT connected sensors in parking lots, this service enabled WIOT visitors to use a dedicated app on their smartphones to find and book a vacant parking space.

China Mobile, Ericsson and Intel are also running a trial of Mobile IoT technologies to monitor the usage and condition of tools inside a factory. The trial, at the Ericsson Panda Communication Company (a radio product manufacturing site) in Nanjing, encompasses production line monitoring, warehouse monitoring and package and materials tracking. The solution employs the China Mobile IoT Open Platform and an associated SDK.

At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February 2017, China Mobile, Ericsson and Intel demonstrated an end-to-end solution that uses NB-IoT to track the movements of a high-precision screwdriver and then analyses the resulting data to determine when maintenance is required. There are about 1,000 high-precision screwdrivers in the factory that require routine calibrations and lubrications based upon the amount of usage, all of which are recorded manually on paper today. The automated solution should result in a longer lifespan for the tools and a reduction of human errors during operations

China Mobile Shanghai has also teamed up with Ericsson and Mobike, a popular bicycle-sharing service in Asia, to assess how Mobile IoT networks can improve customer service. The companies have trialed Mobile IoT technology on a live network enabling push bikes to be more accurately located and coverage to be expanded to areas where traditional networks generally can’t reach, such as underground parking lots.

As these trials expand into commercial deployments and the Mobile IoT continues to open up new use cases for cellular connectivity, China Mobile anticipates a dramatic expansion in its IoT business. It is aiming to be serving 200 million IoT connections by the end of 2017, up from 60 million at the beginning of 2016.