When it comes to the kind of low-power, wide area (LPWA) connectivity needed to connect vast networks of sensors in smart factories, on smart farms, and across smart cities, Chinese uptake looks set to be a deciding factor in the question of which cellular standard is likely to have the biggest impact: NB-IoT or LTE-M?
According to a report last week from market research company Berg Insight, it seems that NB-IoT (Narrowband IoT) will win out, thanks to demand for the technology in the world’s most populous nation.
That’s significant, because European mobile operators have generally been slow to roll out NB-IoT networks (with the exception of Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone), while US companies have tended to favour LTE-M over NB-IoT.
Berg Insight’s analysts predict that global shipments of NB-IoT devices will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of almost 42 percent, from 106.9 million units in 2018 to 613.2 million units in 2023. By contrast, global shipments of LTE-M devices are only expected to reach 185.3 million units in 2023, they believe.
“China is driving a major paradigm shift in the global cellular IoT industry,” said Tobias Ryberg, senior analyst and author of the report.
“The country has embarked on one of the world’s largest digital infrastructure projects that will result in billions of new connected devices in the coming five years,” he added, noting that NB-IoT was designated as the country’s preferred LPWA technology and plays a key role in national policy.
In fact, the Chinese telecoms regulator – the Ministry of Industry & Information Technology (MIIT) – went further last year, by announcing bold targets for NB-IoT deployment. The plans aimed for 400,000 base stations supporting more than 20 million connections by the end of 2017, rising to 1.5 million base stations supporting in excess of 600 million connections by 2020.
In response, the country’s two leading mobile operators – China Mobile and China Telecom – have both rolled out extensive NB-IoT networks in the country, with China Telecom the first to achieve nationwide coverage. Third-place China Unicom isn’t far behind.
Earlier this month, China Mobile Hong Kong (CMHK) announced an agreement with property developer Sino Group to deploy an NB-IoT network across Sino Group’s residential and commercial properties in Hong Kong, focusing initially on smart home, smart shopping mall, and smart property management projects.
Meanwhile in February, China Telecom announced it had worked with Shenzhen Water Group to deliver what it claimed was the world’s first commercial NB-IoT-based water management platform. In recent years, the city of Shenzhen has seen problems with water supply escalate, due to drought and water pollution from local factories.
To help tackle this problem, real-time data is collected from 1,200 smart water meters in order to monitor pipe networks and water quality control to 4,500 residents. Prior to the pilot, Shenzhen Water Group had been forced to send out staff to customer properties in order to identify and resolve water flow issues.
All this activity is likely to have a knock-on effect for the technology elsewhere in the world, as Analysys Mason analyst Tom Rebbeck wrote in a research note earlier this year:
“The steps taken by the Chinese operators should help the NB-IoT ecosystem globally. The Chinese networks are on a massive scale, which should help reduce prices and resolve initial problems. This should also benefit Chinese companies, such as Huawei, that are heavily involved with the technology, as they look to markets outside of China, as well as Chinese manufacturers and app developers.”