How Far Along Is Narrowband IoT in 2020?

April 17, 2020 by Gary Elinoff

It’s soldiered through 2G, 3G, and 4G, and is now beginning its journey into the 5G era.

Qualcomm recently announced what it describes as the "world’s most power-efficient NB2 IoT chipset." This announcement gives us a good opportunity to benchmark how far narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) has come—especially since it's been two years that AAC contributor Robin Mitchell described NB-IoT as an emerging technology headed for widespread adoption.

But first, let's define the concept of NB-IoT and chart its history over the past few years.


What Is Narrowband IoT?

According to u-blox, narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) is a form of cellular technology most appropriate for IoT devices that only need to transfer small amounts of data sporadically.


Applications of NB-IoT.

Applications of NB-IoT. Image used courtesy of u-blox

NB-IoT is a low-power service with no need for regular battery replacement, which can be advantageous for remote, hard-to-reach, or dangerous locations.


How Has NB-IoT Grown?

As reported in Mobile World Live, hosted by the GSMA, NB-IoT achieved 100 million worldwide connections in January of this year. 10 million of those connections came from water and gas meter connections alone.


NB-IoT connection growth to 2025

NB-IoT connection growth to 2025 according to CounterPoint. Image used courtesy of Mobile World Live

A common use case for NB-IoT, water and gas meters need to be serviced only occasionally with small amounts of data transferred. While there is seldom danger involved with checking these meters, this task would usually fall on a human operator, costing time and money—an issue negated with NB-IoT.


Gas and water meter growth

Gas and water meter growth from 2017–2019. Image used courtesy of Mobile World Live

2G and 3G are more than adequate for most applications of NB-IoT, but those services are being phased out. NB-IoT is being ported to 5G, which might be overkill for traditional use cases like the meters mentioned, but may find use in future applications. 


2020 Developments in NB-IoT

Here are some other ways companies this year are pushing the ever-widespread adoption of NB-IoT technology.


Quacomm’s 212 LTE IoT Modem

The newly-announced NB2 IoT (NB-IoT) chipset from Qualcomm—the 212 LTE IoT Modem—draws less than one microamp in its sleep mode and can operate with a power supply as low as 2.2 V. The NB2 device supports single-mode 3GPP Release 14.

NB2 IoT connectivity is expected to support frequency bands ranging from 0.7 GHz to 2.1 GHz to enable worldwide applications.

Qualcomm's VP of power management (Qualcomm Europe) Vieri Vanghi explains the results of this new modem: “The Qualcomm 212 LTE IoT Modem will help usher in a new era for a range of IoT applications around the globe, especially those requiring connectivity deep within buildings combined with low power use, like battery-powered IoT devices that need to operate for 15 years or longer in the field."


Qualcomm’s 212 LTE IoT modem

Qualcomm’s 212 LTE IoT modem. Image used courtesy of Qualcomm


The device includes an Arm Cortex M3 application processor, which, along with its set of IoT data networking protocols, simplifies the task of designing embedded IoT applications.


Sequans and Microchip Collaborate for Connectivity

Sequans and Microchip are combining strengths to develop 5G LTE-M/NB-IoT connectivity, affirming the efficacy of the MPU to cellular device combination. The collaboration is appropriately centered on Sequan’s Monarch family of 5G and 4G chips and Microchip’s ubiquitous MCU family.

Both companies have much to gain. Sequans will have exposure to Microchip’s customer base, and Microchip will be able to offer those customers one-stop connectivity.

Greg Robinson, Microchip's VP of marketing for the 8-bit MCU business unit explains, 

“Sequans’ Monarch LTE-M/NB-IoT technology is an important part of our embedded IoT solutions strategy and our collaboration with Sequans helps to overcome the challenges developers face in connecting MCUs to the cloud via cellular IoT networks.”

The company has also stated its confidence in the Sequeans Monarch platform to provide low-power consumption, global deployment, and secure connectivity.


What's the Future of NB-IoT?

In a statistical forecast of IoT expansion, Ericcson predicted that the number of cellular IoT connections will reach 5 billion in 2025. They estimate that NB-IoT and Cat-M technologies will account for more than 50 percent of these.

Ericsson sees massive IoT technologies, like NB-IoT and Cat-M, becoming more commonplace in low-complexity, low-cost devices—reaching 100 million by the end of 2020. While NB-IoT is particularly useful for low data throughput and long battery life, this technology isn't suited for high data rates and low latency. That’s where broadband IoT comes in.

Ericsson believes the future is bright for both NB-IoT and broadband IoT. 


Ericcson’s predictions for cellular IoT (in billions) to 2025

Ericcson’s predictions for cellular IoT (in billions) to 2025. Image used courtesy of Ericcson


As you can see above, the company does predict that massive IoT will grow faster than broadband IoT. Interestingly, Ericcson also holds that 2G/3G will hang in there well into the decade. So there’s still hope for water meters, after all.



Do you have experience designing devices suited for narrowband IoT? Share your experiences in the comments below.