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Vodafone says it'll launch NB-IoT network in EU early next year

Nobody's really impressed, but take a look at the long term

A mobile phone mast. Stock pic

Vodafone has announced it will start rolling out its narrowband Internet of Things (NB-IoT) focused network in four EU countries from the start of next year – and folk across industry are rolling their eyes.

NB-IoT is a low-power network aimed at devices such as smart meters. Vodafone has said it is wheeling out the new tech in Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and Spain beginning in Q1 2017.

This is all well and good but NB-IoT has received a less-than-enthusiastic welcome so far. While the British telco has been pumping out press releases promoting it, the parts of the world likely to actually use it have been fettling about with other standards such as LoRaWAN – which enjoyed a network rollout across a slice of central London earlier this year.

Vodafone reckons its chief advantages with NB-IoT are that it can roll it out across its 4G masts with only a software update, rather than the costly alternative of sending out fleets of men in vans to install new dedicated base stations, and that it can deploy NB-IoT through its own licensed spectrum, rather than competing with world+dog on an unlicensed spectrum, as most rival IoT networking tech does.

As TelecomTV reported, Vodafone "has control over its spectrum slivers so can theoretically ensure better quality of service than the other LPWAN operators, who usually compete with each other (and other applications) in the public ISM band".

The NB-IoT standard was adopted by the standards-setting body 3GPP in September last year. Many of its members who supported the standard are larger telcos, including Telefonica (owners of the UK’s O2), AT&T, Alcatel-Lucent, Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone, among others, and hardware manufacturers including Samsung, Sony and LG also put their names to it. The GSMA also has a dedicated NB-IoT forum.

This suggests that in the long run, despite all the hype and resulting derision, NB-IoT may slowly catch on as telcos roll it out within their existing infrastructures at minimal cost. However, as Tom Rebbeck of analyst haus Analysys Mason points out: “The news from Vodafone puts pressure on technologies that compete with NB-IoT, such as LoRa, SIGFOX and Ingenu. LoRa in particular is looking robust, though. In recent weeks, Softbank in Japan and Comcast in the US have announced plans for LoRa networks, and others with LoRa networks (e.g. Orange in France, Tata Communications in India) are aggressively exploring its potential. To give a sense of scale of LoRa, it now has the support of mobile operators with approaching 200 million cellular subscribers.”

Vodafone boasts that it already has a trial with Spanish water firm Aguas de Valencia in the pipeline. Whether other networks will follow suit with NB-IoT sooner, rather than later, remains to be seen. ®

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