rollout-China Unicom

China Unicom rolls out NB-IoT across China

China Unicom is offering commercial NB-IoT services in more than 20 cities, including Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Fuzhou, across China. In Shanghai alone, Unicom has upgraded 2,700 base stations to support this low power wide area technology, providing coverage across the whole city. As it refarms spectrum for 4G, the operator is using both 900MHz and 1800MHz spectrum bands for NB-IoT. However, parts of these frequency bands are still needed for 2G and 3G services in some regions of China.

Following smart parking, water metering and smart lighting pilots, Unicom concluded that the coverage of NB-IoT is much better than that of a conventional 4G or 3G network, especially in some indoor scenarios, such as underground car parks. Having verified that NB-IoT is a very cost-effective way to provide coverage to large numbers of devices, Unicom has now identified about 50 potential use cases for the technology.

The early adopters

Unicom’s customers are already using NB-IoT in factories to monitor equipment on production lines, collect readings from energy and water metres, track the availability of parking spaces, control street lighting and monitor sensors inside buildings. As China is prioritising the development of smart cities, the central government and city administrations, together with energy company SoftGrid, are among the early adopters of NB-IoT. Unicom’s NB-IoT network is already serving between 20,000 and 30,000 connections, including 1,000 smoke alarms in buildings in Shanghai.

As LTE base stations can be adapted to support NB-IoT with a straightforward software upgrade, Unicom is making the technology available wherever customers need it. In tandem, it is rolling out a new core network nationwide, due to be fully in place by the end of August.

In some cases, Unicom’s customers are using NB-IoT to replace existing technologies, such as WiFi or GSM, while in others, this low cost connectivity is supporting entirely new use cases. Unicom is working with some device makers, including Xiaomi, to integrate NB-IoT into new consumer devices, such as pet trackers and connected wristbands. Unicom’s customers can now source NB-IoT modules from 20 companies in China.

Next steps

In 2017, Unicom intends to construct thousands of commercial NB-IoT networks in more than 100 cities. It also plans to complete its trials of LTE-M in preparation for a broad commercial rollout in 2018.

Unicom is also piloting LTE-M in Beijing, testing multi-mode modules that support this technology and NB-IoT. It sees the two technologies as complementary, each supporting different scenarios and use cases.