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The NB-IoT Train Is Coming

The 3GPP isn't known for its haste. In the race to fill the gap for a low-power, wide-area (LPWA) communications technology, the cellular specifications group has been worryingly slow off the mark. Not until June was NB-IoT -- the standard that has attracted the most attention -- included in the 3GPP's Release 13. France's Sigfox and others using non-3GPP technologies have had the field largely to themselves. But that is soon about to change.

A cellular retort to Sigfox , LoRa and other LPWA technologies that use unlicensed spectrum, NB-IoT is quickly powering up. Just last week, Singapore's MobileOne Ltd. (M1) (Singapore: MONE) said it would launch a commercial NB-IoT network in the first half of 2017 in partnership with Finnish vendor Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK). Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD), one of NB-IoT's most prominent backers, similarly plans to introduce commercial services next year. Matt Beal, Vodafone's director of architecture and innovation, has proclaimed that NB-IoT will "crush" Sigfox and LoRa when it finally appears. (See M1 Plans Nationwide NB-IoT Network with Nokia andVodafone to 'Crush' LoRa, Sigfox With NB-IoT.)

Even one of Sigfox's customers has an eye on 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) standards. Verisure, which is using Sigfox technology to support its security offerings, recently confessed it would consider adding NB-IoT and LTE-M, another 3GPP technology, to its range of technology options in future. (See Sigfox Customer Verisure Eyes NB-IoT.)

The stakes are potentially high. Expectations are that billions of devices, from smart meters and household appliances to bits of industrial equipment, will eventually have to send information over data networks. Many of these devices will be in use for several years but have very limited bandwidth needs: Think of a tracking system, for instance, that "bleeps" every few minutes to provide an update on the whereabouts of a particular asset.

Existing cellular technologies, with their focus on piping ever more bandwidth to users, are wholly unsuited to the LPWA task. To succeed, technologies need to be extremely energy-efficient, reducing power costs, and capable of transmitting signals over long distances using a comparatively small number of basestations. Minimizing the cost per bit is the ultimate goal.

Sigfox, LoRa and others already hold considerable attractions. Sigfox, for example, is reported to have been charging as little as $1 annually to connect a device, boasting a huge cost advantage over cellular rivals. Ingenu , another LPWA player based in San Diego, claims it can cover vast areas with its RPMA (for random phase multiple access) technology using just a fraction of the basestations needed by its competitors. (See Sigfox Plans Global IoT Networkand Ingenu Revs Up IoT Rhetoric.)

Yet large mobile operators are likely to favor 3GPP technologies for a host of reasons. For one thing, upgrading cellular basestations to support NB-IoT is likely to be a straightforward software job, in many cases. Rolling out Sigfox or LoRa will look much costlier. And operators used to working within licensed frequencies fear that unlicensed-spectrum technologies will be subject to congestion and interference.

Such concern appears to be influencing the strategy of one or two operators in the vibrant French market. Eager to meet existing LPWA demand, Orange(NYSE: FTE) has been rolling out a LoRa network at home. Yet it has also indicated that it would prefer to use licensed-spectrum technologies, hinting that it may eventually replace LoRa with a 3GPP standard. Numericable-SFR , France's second-biggest operator, is currently a customer of Sigfox. But it recently revealed it was "experimenting" with NB-IoT and LTE-M. "NB-IoT and LTE-M are not available yet and SFR's strategy is to bring new IoT solutions to its B2B customers right now," a spokesperson told Light Reading. 

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