2019 will be "the year of cellular IoT"


Competing LPWAN technologies are currently on an equal footing, but this year will see cellular IoT leap ahead.

It’s a bold claim, but 2019 should see cellular IoT finally become a large-scale commercial reality. This prediction comes even as competitive low power wide area network (LPWAN) technologies, such as those from LoRa and Sigfox, appear to have taken an early lead on the back of publicly-announced commercial successes and cheaper per module prices.

After years of detailed behind-the-scenes planning, development, and testing, Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT)/LTE Cat M1 (LTE-M) modem makers, infrastructure providers, and network operators such as Nordic Semiconductor, Ericsson, and Telenor are working together ahead of major mass-market launches.

And while it looked like U.S. firms were backing LTE-M and China the NB-IoT alternative, the evidence now points to major networks across the globe rolling-out support for both technologies. This is in part due to each cellular IoT technology having different advantages. For example, NB-IoT features longer range but lower throughput, making it useful for remote but less data-intensive applications such as smart meters and crop supervision, while LTE-M offers greater throughput for applications such as traffic control and patient monitoring. The decision to back both technologies is also in part commercial as it allows the network operators to cover all potential customer requirements and applications.

While the network operators and their infrastructure partners have been doing their best to build the foundations of mass cellular IoT adoption, leading modem vendors like Nordic haven’t been standing still. For example, one factor that threatened to limit cellular IoT’s adoption was its perceived complexity. But while it’s true that some vendors’ LTE-M products are challenging to design-in (and even then offer limited functionality) that is not the case with Nordic’s cellular IoT product.

The complexities of cellular IoT design have been addressed with the introduction of Nordic’s nRF91 Series low power cellular IoT module. The product hides the LTE complexity enabling developers with little or no cellular experience to focus on the LPWAN-based application. As a result, Nordic’s module is already generating significant interest with dozens of lead customers.

Price isn’t everything
But what of the competing LPWAN technologies? History does show that proprietary products such as Sigfox can have significant early success. For example, prior to the introduction of the Bluetooth Low Energy (Bluetooth LE) standard specification — a document that Nordic helped to create, and one that describes a technology in which the company holds a leading market share — Nordic was very successful with its proprietary 2.4GHz wireless connectivity chips. But this success was built in the absence of a standard; once Bluetooth LE was adopted, Nordic and others rapidly drove it to dominance.

Customers prefer the multi-vendor environment that a standard brings to a proprietary monopoly that stifles competition and innovation. They also prefer the interoperability, reliability, quality of service, and continued development that a standard underscores.

And the module cost? It’s true that some LPWAN modules sell for as little as $1 and don’t require a subscriber fee. But price is never the making-or-breaking of a technology; how well it solves the problem is what determines success. Customers will pay more if the solution brings greater value and ease-of-use. A cheap wireless IoT module is of little value if it doesn’t work in harmony with established infrastructure across the world – not just in the cities that happen to have the network support. In contrast, the global infrastructure for cellular IoT is in place and is working well, and the base LTE technology is proven, reliable, interoperable, and highly secure. No competing LPWAN solution can come near to claiming the same.

In the ultra low power wireless sector, proprietary alternatives are now consigned to a niche. The impending large-scale rollout of NB-IoT and LTE-M cellular IoT in almost every country across the world, backed by high-performing yet simple-to- design-in modems such as the nRF91 Series, will do the same to proprietary LPWAN technologies – whether the modules are cheap or not.

The global infrastructure for cellular IoT is in place

By Svein-Egil Nielsen