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Demo may have frozen, but narrowband IoT stew is still piping hot

NB-IoT looms as a network tech Godzilla

By Gareth Corfield, 24 Nov 2016

MBBF2016 Narrowband-Internet of Things (NB-IoT) is the IoT networking technology most favoured by big telcos. Softbank tried demonstrating it today at Huawei's Global Mobile Broadband Forum – and it didn't go to plan.

Today has seen the first November snow in Tokyo for 54 years. Although the BBC was able to predict this last week with surprising accuracy, Japanese telecoms company Softbank decided that an outdoor demo of NB-IoT was necessary at sunset.

The use case described was fairly typical of most low-powered IoT systems: a car park with sensors feeding back which spaces were free and which were occupied. The processed data was fed into a mobile app for display to drivers.

As the world's tech press gathered in the conference centre car park around two small electric heaters only capable of warming one's shins in the the near-freezing temperatures, shivering Softbank reps talked us through the system.

Then came the practical part. The demo car reversed into the space. The sensor did its thing and the app duly showed the space as occupied. Then the demo car pulled forward.

Nothing happened. The space still showed as occupied. Everyone stood, waiting expectantly.

The Softbank man poked and prodded at the phone. "It must be the Wi-Fi," he announced, turning off its Wi-Fi. This succeeded solely in killing the TV feed to which the phone's display was being copied.

After several minutes of further poking and prodding at the phone, during which several of the lightly frozen press stomped back inside the building, the app decided to function again. The space changed from yellow to green. The remaining hacks made vaguely indifferent noises and immediately turned tail.

Although the demo itself was a partial failure (and could quite easily have been done indoors using a remote-controlled car), NB-IoT is certainly not going away. Vodafone has repeatedly promised to roll out its NB-IoT-based IoT offering in Europe in Q1 2017, to much scepticism from British IoT industry players. Softbank and Huawei are both strong advocates of it too, while Singapore telco M1 has already rolled out an NB-IoT network.

Competing technologies such as Sigfox and LoRa are perhaps better liked by UK IoT outfits, but as wireless networking sage Nick Hunn points out, that doesn't matter:

...particularly in the case of mobile, the technology is primarily there to make money for network operators. It needs to be reliable enough to sell contracts, which is what pays for investment in infrastructure. For them, technical specmanship plays second or third fiddle to ease of deployment and the ability to bill. It is a sign of how little the M2M and IoT industry has evolved past a fixation with hardware that they fail to see this.

He who has the deepest pockets tends to win. With the big mobile operators getting behind NB-IoT, which, as Vodafone keeps reminding us, can be deployed through a simple software update to its existing LTE masts, IoT advocates should probably swallow their pride and start looking at it sooner rather than later. ®

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