Mar 3, 2022

Less than 1 minute

What is NB-IoT? Everything You Need To Know

The tech world can be a tricky one to keep track of. Being the glorious hotbed of innovation that it is, modern information technology is on a rampant march of explosive growth and widespread disruption. It feels like it was just yesterday that IoT was this much-vaunted futuristic technology that was going to change the way we lived our lives - cut to 2021, and we see that IoT devices have quietly made their way into our lives in the form of connected cars, IoT node devices, smart televisions, and well, the list could go on.

In a nutshell,

Narrowband IoT is essentially a telecommunications standard much like 4G-LTE or 5G cellular networks. It is a wide-area network (WAN) standard that enables ultra-low-power wireless sensor networks to work in an energy-efficient way.

In today’s world of IoT devices, devices and more connected devices, battery life is the name of the game. It is no coincidence that manufacturers of smartphones are constantly engaged in a game of monstrous battery-life one-upmanship - phones these days are unrecognisable in comparison to their predecessors from just a few years ago - sporting gargantuan batteries, sometimes running into the 8000s of maH, these dinosaurs are only getting bigger in order to quench the insatiable thirst of the consumer who wants more entertainment, more content, more calls - well you get the point. 

But this kind of progression is unsustainable - batteries can only get so big. But the world of smartphones, IoT and electronics is a cut-throat business - companies have to bend over backwards and make the impossible happen to get a slice of the pie - only to exceed that and come up with something even more awesome the next year. So then, where do we go from here?

The customer needs to be served even bigger platters of techie goodness every single year - that’s not going to change. He is going to want insane battery back up no matter how many other space-age specs you tempt him with - that’s not going to change either. But the battery problem is no trivial issue. There’s no running away from the fact that our reliance on lithium and cobalt-based batteries is terrifyingly unsustainable. 

Wait a minute? Isn’t this supposed to be an article about narrowband IoT? 

Hold your horses there! It is - If you are a normal person, far removed from the dizzying world of technology, this is the best way for you to understand what NB-IoT means - before we go into the nitty-gritty of what NB-IoT is, how it works and all that drab stuff - you’d probably be better off understanding it in reverse. We started with battery life because, in a nutshell, the whole NB-IoT standard is built to enable ultra-low-power IoT applications that can run for a really long time. 

Why is Narrowband IoT being talked about so much? Like, what’s the big deal about it? What is the problem it’s going to solve?

Ok, so let’s hit in quick-fire bullet points

What you need to understand first is that NB-IoT is a technology standard that is aimed at creating a vast range of new IoT connected devices that are able to function for longer periods of time and across a bigger range of functionalities and locations. 

NB-IoT was developed by the 3GPP as a solution for IoT devices that require low power and long battery life.  

Maybe, let’s quickly also go over why each of these features is pretty awesome, from a practical point of view. 

So, as far as the first point is concerned, it should be pretty obvious. Like we went over it at the beginning, the longer a device lasts between charges, the better it is - both for the user and the environment. 

The next cool feature with NB-IoT is that they enable long-range communication between connected nodes in a network - up to 10km in some cases (rural)!

This means that IoT networks built on this standard could have a dramatically wider range of functionality and connectivity. 

In addition to longer battery life and wider operational range, NB-IoT comes equipped with a host of next-gen security features that allow for user identity to be protected along with the integrity of the data being transmitted and the safety of the devices. 

The Techie Deets 

So, now you understand how NB-IoT is going to affect your life as a consumer or a business. Let’s move on to the technical stuff.

What is NB-IoT really? How does it work?

Essentially, NB-IoT is a radio communications standard, much like 5G or LTE. However, unlike 5G or LTE cellular networks which are designed for high throughput usage, NB-IoT is a niche technology that is specifically designed for low-throughput, ultra-low-power applications. 

This means that, unlike your blazing-fast mobile internet technology, NarrowBand-IoT sacrifices bandwidth at the altar of super-long battery life, dense connectivity and high range. 

NB-IoT is an LPWAN technology. LPWAN stands for Low Power Wide Area Network. 

What is an LPWAN you ask? 

An LPWAN is essentially a type of wireless communication network standard that is targeted at enabling small-bit-rate communications among connected objects over long distances. In layman's terms, it’s just like the technology your phone uses to connect you to the world and your friends - except, it is specifically designed for tiny packets of information to be sent over vast distances or across densely populated networks of nodes - and it is designed to do this while being super-stingy with battery consumption. 

Ok, so now that we have that out of the way, let’s take a look at some of the advantages that NB-IoT networks bring to the table.

1. Efficiency

Hey we get it! We’ve been labouring this point a bit too much now - but that’s for a reason! If we’re going to live in a world with hundreds of billions of sensors - a world of seamless information exchange and universal access to smart technology - then, this technology is going to have to be efficient. 

We simply can’t afford new technologies that are going to tax our waning energy resources. Batteries represent a major logistical, ecological and humanitarian problem. Unfortunately, we’re not quite at the point where we can get rid of batteries altogether - at least as far as macro-scale uses go. In fact, in sectors like the automobile industry, batteries have not yet seen their heyday. 

However, when it comes to microelectronics and connected IoT devices, we are better placed to make decisions from a holistic perspective rather than just an economically driven one. It is in this context that technologies like NB-IoT that offer so much groundbreaking potential in terms of energy efficiency are important. 

At the risk of sounding like snobs, we’d like to take it a step further. At ONiO, we think IoT devices can sidestep batteries altogether - we have the technologies and resources in place. Energy harvesting is a more elegant and sensible solution to the problem of powering IoT devices and sensors. 

Anyway, that’s a topic for another day. 

Think about it - in a world with 20 billion IoT devices, which is a gross underestimation if anything, it’s simply not going to be possible to change batteries every six months. We need devices that use infinitesimal amounts of energy and that too only when they are actively sending and receiving packets of data. Without getting too caught up in the details, this is one of the biggest selling points of the NB-IoT technology standard. 

If we’re going to be thinking of deploying IoT nodes at a large scale - think smart cities, smart homes etc, we’re going to need a technology standard that allows for nodes to be deployed and forgotten about. That’s where NB-IoT comes in -  it allows devices to communicate with one another using very little energy, and it can do so over long distances. 

2. Low Costs

You don’t need to be Einstein to work this one out - companies are not going to invest big in any new technology if it’s not going to add to their bottom line at the end of the day. And you know what, that’s how it should be - a company is essentially a living entity that is playing the game of survival in a brutal marketplace where a penny shaved is often the difference between life and death. 

This is more true than ever today, with our rampantly growing information infrastructure and hyper-connected global marketplace. NB-IoT and other technologies of its like use a very simple waveform and therefore, consume less power. It’s not just power savings though - As NB-IoT gains widespread acceptance, it’s going to get cheaper and cheaper to produce NB-IoT chips. This will start a virtuous cycle that will further benefit both businesses and consumers. That’s the power of economies of scale in action!

3. Reliability

As we mentioned in the earlier section, NB-IoT networks use a very simple waveform as opposed to some other standards designed for different kinds of usage patterns. This means that in addition to being extremely energy efficient and economical, NB-IoT is an extremely robust and reliable technology. 

If NB-IoT is rolled out on an already existing licensed spectrum, it would translate to improved reliability while also ensuring the resource allocation needed for Quality of Service (QoS). 

4. Seamlessness

If you’ve been following IoT for a while, you probably know that in spite of its humongous growth, connected objects have failed to live up to predictions made in the heady halcyon days of its inception. 

There are several reasons for this which we won’t get into now - but, one important reason is legacy infrastructure that companies have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into - they simply weren’t going to cast away older technology standards without getting a return of investment. 

This is the reality of the marketplace that often flies over the head of over-enthusiastic tech-heads. However, compared to LTE-M1, NB-IoT works with lower bitrates and therefore doesn't need gateways or hubs to provide connectivity. If you are a business, this means that you won’t need to buy another piece of equipment in order to employ the NB-IoT standard. 

NB-IoT can connect nodes directly to the base station or to satellites, without the need for any kind of a relay hub. That might not seem like much but over vast operations spanning multiple nations, that makes NB-IoT incredibly appealing to businesses. 

5. Reach

The big boys of the American telecommunications space have already poured ungodly sums of money into building LTE and 5G networks. Other parts of the world are catching up at their own pace. However, even in some developing markets, 5G networks are being rolled out like nobody’s business. 

However, around the world, there are still large GSM deployments that contain a lot of unused frequency bands - bands that could be used to deploy NB-IoT devices. This is a huge point in favour of NarrowBand IoT. 

In essence, NB-IoT will impute value to GSM bands that would have otherwise become obsolete. This will likely tempt  IoT innovators to find affordable ways to tap into new global markets. 

Even in highly wealthy markets such as Western Europe and the US, smaller telecommunications carriers might find a lot of value in choosing to deploy NarrowBand-IoT on existing GSM bands, in order to expand their offerings without shelling out a bomb! 

10 Examples of NarrowBand-IoT Applications

You should have a reasonable idea of the promise that NB-IoT holds for the world of connected devices. Let’s now take a brief peek at the sheer cornucopia of potential IoT use-cases that NarrowBand-IoT could enable in the near future. 

For the purpose of this introductory post, we’ll stick to just a brief overview, without getting lost in the details of the hows, the whys and the whats.

Here are 10 prominent IoT applications that are expected to use NB-IoT:

  1. Smart meters that track usage of electricity, gas, water etc.
  2. Smart logistics operations
  3. Home and commercial security systems
  4. Connected health devices
  5. Smart city installations like street lamps and smart bins.
  6. Location tracking devices
  7. Medical implants for people and pets
  8. IIoT machines and smart factory equipment
  9. Remote controls for home appliances
  10. Predictive maintenance systems

Challenges

As is the case with just about anything in life, NB-IoT has its fair share of hurdles to overcome as well - 

Firstly, with carriers investing billions of dollars on moving to LTE, NB-IoT deployments might come with significant initial costs in order to develop the right kind of operational infrastructure. Furthermore, in cases where there isn’t much of the GSM pie left to share, sophisticated front ends and modern antennae may be needed - which will only serve to make the barrier to entry that much steeper. 

Then, there is always the possibility that the ISP giants of the world will play hardball and crank up licensing feeds - making it all the more difficult for the little fish. 

As we mentioned earlier in the post, costs are expected to come down rapidly with NB-IoT, but that will still entail businesses having to shell out big bucks in order to get the party started. Nevertheless, this might not be such a universal concern - In many parts of the world, 200-KHz GSM spectrums are rife with unused bands - we’ve got a host of talented people across the globe trying to make NB-IoT the most compelling low-power, wide-area network built till date. What’s more? With the advent of 5G technology, NB-IoT’s stocks are expected to rise further - hey, but more on that some other day!

About the author

Abishek Swaminathen

Senior Content Manager

Abishek is ONiO’s senior content manager. A medical doctor by profession, he stumbled onto a writing career almost by accident, as it were. Words have enthralled Abishek since the day he first held a book and at ONiO, he channels his inner wordsmith towards providing our subscribers with regular doses of fun and informative content.

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