NB-IoT now exceeds 100 million connections, and will prove an essential tool in adapting to COVID-19

Reports of globalisation’s demise have been much exaggerated: the present crisis calls for a more connected world, not a more fragmented one, even as we seek ways to avoid transmission of COVID-19. Clearly, we will be required to minimise personal contact in the foreseeable future, and then likely settle on ways of life at least somewhat changed from what we have known previously. The reality, however, is that whatever shape that ‘new normal’ ends up taking, the need for connectivity in all areas of economic, social and domestic life will be higher than ever – with consequent drive on the demand for cellular IoT devices.

Businesses, governments, and organisations of all kinds will need to adapt quickly to this sudden and fundamental change: how can procedures be automated, assets secured and processes monitored remotely to support social distancing measures? How will the automotive industry protect shop-floor personnel once production resumes? How will logistics companies track inventories without requiring staff to mingle? And how will people working from home manage household appliances with a minimum of distraction, or those observing quarantine track their utility consumption without admitting call-out staff for meter readings?

The answers will vary in each case of course, but the requirement for connectivity between devices will prove a common factor – and Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) is quickly emerging as an integral part in this story. NB-IoT modules are already proliferating rapidly in contexts as diverse as smart locks, intelligent road management, asset tracking, animal monitoring and smart home appliances. In particular however, its extraordinary potential in connected industry has made industrial IoT the leading source of deployments to date, with smart manufacturing forecast to remain the fastest-growing IoT segment into the mid-2020s.

NB-IoT’s momentum has been especially pronounced in China, where the 5G NB-IoT Industry Summit took place (remotely) last month – drawing projections and case studies from leading ecosystem actors including major operators, policymakers, chipset and module vendors and application developers. MediaTek’s Senior Planning Officer for NB-IoT for instance cited findings that NB-IoT is 68% more responsive than traditional IoT in vehicle tracking tests – invaluable at a time when freight services face sudden additional strain to remain financially viable.

“NB-IoT has undergone explosive growth and is now further energised by 5G,” reflected Huawei’s Vice President for Wireless Product Line Cao Ming, noting the millions of NB-IoT utility meters now being ordered in markets from Italy to Saudi Arabia. “Many other NB-IoT use cases are enjoying large scale deployments too – like bike sharing in Belgium or charging posts in South Korea to name a few.” In January 2020, NB-IoT reached the milestone of 100 million connections globally; General Manager at China Mobile’s IoT Innovation Center Xiao Qing forecasts that China Mobile will enable 70 million new NB-IoT connections in China this year alone, as huge volumes of everyday devices such as bicycles and utility meters are brought online through cellular connectivity.

With existing NB-IoT smart meters maintaining a remarkable online rate of over 99%, China Mobile has been able to secure contracts for millions more, illustrating the ever growing confidence behind this highly versatile technology. China Unicom has to date attracted more than 20,000 industrial IoT companies as customers, and China Telecom now serves over 50 million customers through more than 400,000 NB-IoT base stations (equal to nearly 98% national coverage) – and as the cost of NB-IoT modules quickly reduces to approach 2G counterparts, we can expect to see similarly striking figures around the world. Quectel’s Deputy General Manager Sun Yanming noted that nearly a third of its NB-IoT modules are now shipped outside China, and many of these have been rolled out at speed to combat the coronavirus pandemic in use cases such as door status trackers and contactless body temperature sensors.

The development of NB-IoT in Europe too, then, is picking up speed. Deutsche Telekom announced last month that it has signed NB-IoT roaming agreements with several European partners including Vodafone, Telia Company and Swisscom, bringing the total number of countries in Europe with Mobile IoT roaming to 18. Any company planning to manufacture or deploy Mobile IoT devices at scale will require seamless coverage across borders to ensure consistency of service, and this agreement marks another important step towards that goal – building on the considerable progress made to date in Mobile IoT roaming across Europe and North America. “This allows them to benefit from economies of scale as they continue to expand their business,” explains Rami Avidan, responsible for IoT at Deutsche Telekom. “We are working hard to help accelerate the adoption of NB-IoT roaming in Europe and beyond. It is great to see the interoperability of these networks now in place.”

Part of the story here is the low power consumption of NB-IoT units; the requirement for ultra-long battery lives in devices often vast in number and in hard-to-reach locations was already keen, and will only grow as organisations of all kinds seek ways to minimise manned maintenance trips. One key development announced in April came from leading wireless technology innovator Qualcomm, that it has developed its most power-efficient NB-IoT chipset yet, capable of operating for 15 years or longer at a time. While clearly we all hope to have moved beyond the present circumstances well before then, advances like these will figure in the calculations being made around the world right now. The global total of cellular IoT connections is currently forecast to reach a quite staggering 3.2 billion by 2024; will we see these projections rise further still as the world scrambles to reorganise in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic? Watch this space. NB-IoT’s time has come – with new connections set to outpace those of its more numerous sibling LTE-M by 2022 – and, with the extraordinary complications we now face, not a moment too soon.