What is Narrowband-IoT?

27-05-2021 | By Sam Brown

Narrowband-IoT is still in its infancy and yet to become a dominant IoT technology standard. So what challenges do remote IoT devices face, what is Narrowband-IoT, and will it become the future IoT technology?

What challenges do traditional IoT devices face?

While the term “IoT” is relatively new, the concept of connected devices on a worldwide network is not, and internet devices have existed for as long as the internet has been around. However, the term Internet of Things, or IoT, came around in the mid-2000s and described how even simple data gathering devices were becoming internet-enabled.

Fast forward to 2021 and we now see a world with billions of internet-connected devices. From basic temperature loggers to full-fledged smart assistants, IoT devices are hard to avoid and are increasingly becoming involved in daily life. But these marvels of technology face some challenges which are preventing their use in many applications.

The first challenge is power; as many IoT devices are designed to be mobile and remote (i.e. allow for mounting in any location), they require a battery power source. However, the use of wireless networks such as Wi-Fi can have a major impact on battery life, and as such IoT devices using Wi-Fi on batteries often require frequent recharging (which is not practical).

The second challenge is connectivity; networks such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are not always available and can have poor coverage. For example, an IoT sensor needing to be used in the middle of a farm field will not have access to Wi-Fi, and therefore will not be able to connect to the internet to send and receive data.

What is Narrowband-IoT?

Narrowband-IoT is an IoT connectivity technology that utilizes mobile networks instead of unlicensed networks such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. However, unlike networks utilized by smartphones, the networks designed to host IoT devices are limited in bandwidth and speed (from MB/s to kb/s). The severely reduced connection speeds not only enables more devices to connect to the network, but each IoT device can consume significantly less power in transmission. Furthermore, many IoT devices only require sending messages several times a day, and only send so many bytes in any single message, which makes the low-speed narrowband ideal.

The primary goal of Narrowband-IoT (NB-IoT) is to provide widespread internet access to low-powered IoT devices indoors. Incidentally, it is also ideal for use in remote outdoor environments. Going to our previous example, it is far more likely that a soil monitoring IoT device in the middle of a farm will have cellular network coverage than Wi-Fi coverage. In addition, the low-energy requirements enable the sensor to spend most of its time powered down. 

What makes the NB-IoT specification appealing to cellular operators is the ability to integrate the service alongside 2G, 3G, and 4G networks with little to no network degradation. NB-IoT is also able to sit inside guard channels thanks to its 200kHz bandwidth. In addition, it is estimated that a properly designed NB-IoT device can operate for up to 10 years on a single battery with no need for recharging. 

Is NB-IoT the future of IoT technologies?

For a wireless technology that is available wherever there is cellular service, one would think that it would quickly become the dominant force in the market. However, the world has barely scratched the capabilities of NB-IoT, and most designers continue to stick with standard technologies such as Wi-Fi.

But one country has adopted NB-IoT in a frenzy; China. While China has over 884 million IoT devices, their pursuit for smart cities and data monitoring has seen over 95 million NB-IoT devices deployed. It is also estimated that China accounts for over 92% of worldwide NB-IoT devices, and such adoption has been a result of the Chinese government support of IoT technologies. 

Chinas major adoption of NB-IoT raises questions on data gathering and privacy. Considering the many violations of human rights China has committed using technology (such as social credit score), one may conclude that NB-IoT is not a good idea. Generally speaking, if a country such as China supports a country-wide integrated technology, it is most likely for the purpose of monitoring, spying, and control.

NB-IoT would have major applications in smart cities that can intelligently monitor traffic, ensure pedestrian safety, and improve air quality in high congestion areas. However, NB-IoT may encourage widespread integration of technology, and this could raise questions regarding privacy. For example, do citizens really want a faster commute to work in exchange for being watched for their whole journey? 

Read More

By Sam Brown