Why pan-industry collaboration holds the key to NB-IoT’s success

Despite being hailed as a breakthrough technology, NB-IoT has yet to live up to the hype, with delayed deployments, and connections remaining in the millions, rather than the billions promised.

But while there have been irrefutable setbacks, the tide is turning. And as momentum for the technology once again gathers steam, executives from Kaleido Intelligence, SFR, Avnet Silica, and BICS came together to discuss how to take NB-IoT from hype to reality, and why collaboration holds the key to the success of the technology.

Opening the session during BICS’ Future of Connectivity event, Steffen Sorrell, Chief of Research for Kaleido Intelligence, highlighted that with 2.5 billion LPWAN connections expected by 2025, there will be a substantial market for NB-IoT in the coming years. While some may be sceptical of these figures given the numbers promised in the past, according to Cyrille Saulet, eUICC Programme Manager for Avnet Silica, the demand from enterprises is very much there. Saulet revealed that some 70% of Avnet Silica’s customers are requesting NB-IoT, but coverage has restricted adoption. “If there isn’t coverage, customers will stop plans for deploying the devices,” he commented. “We have very strong demand, but we haven’t had a solution.”

Reducing the entry barriers for IoT

Part of the problem, Saulet observed, is that it has historically been difficult for enterprises to engage with multiple operators, in multiple countries, at the same time. This fragmented approach also presents a problem for billing, revealed BICS’ Head of Roaming, Talia Goldstein, during a media roundtable on the same topic. Telcos have been advancing NB-IoT on a national level, but are only beginning to sign interoperability agreements. However, as Goldstein noted, NB-IoT is really just getting started; according to the GSMA, there are already 100 commercial NB-IoT deployments globally, with this figure expected to increase considerably in the coming years.

This momentum was evident during BICS’ panel discussion, with 21% of the mobile operator audience revealing they had plans to launch NB-IoT next year.  These plans are being fuelled by increased coverage, price reductions and – crucially – industry collaboration. Earlier this year, BICS and Avnet Silica joined forces, enabling the semiconductor distributor to directly embed 2G, 3G, 4G, NB-IoT and LTE-M/Cat-M1 into devices, via BICS’ SIM for Things global IoT solution. This coordinated approach has proved so successful that Saulet revealed both parties now regularly meet with customers together, giving each party insight into the challenges their customers are facing.

Bridging the gap between module makers, manufacturers, operators, and end-users is central to BICS’ philosophy, noted BICS’ Head of Enterprise IoT, Fernando Llobregat Baena. “One of our main objectives is to reduce the entry barriers for IoT,” he stated. Part of this involves providing access to coverage so businesses know that wherever their devices end up, they’ll be able to connect. With a network spanning more than 200 countries and guaranteed multi-network coverage in each nation, BICS offers the most comprehensive coverage on the market. This also extends to NB-IoT, where BICS currently offers connectivity in 30 countries, and will be adding more in the coming months.

Tapping into the ecosystem

However, further collaboration will be needed to really supercharge NB-IoT, revealed Llobregat Baena, stating that BICS sees a clear market demand, but “we need MNOs/MVNOs to collaborate to bring NB-IoT and LTE-M roaming to life.” Speaking after the event, Goldstein discussed how recognising the inherent global nature of the IoT will be a key part of this. Devices are built in one market and launched in another, meaning the more operators view the IoT with a global lens, the quicker things can advance. This is another barrier BICS is able to remove, acting as the connector between operators and making it easy for them to set up agreements so that everything works seamlessly.

The importance of collaboration was further enforced by SFR’s Head of Commercial Roaming, Benoit Le Maistre, who highlighted in comments after the event that taking a holistic view of the IoT landscape will be key to its success. “NB-IoT is just part of a global solution to answer customer needs,” he stated. “The ecosystem is a key factor for monetising NB-IoT.”

One thing that was clear from the discussion is that while NB-IoT may have got off to a slow start, it is quickly gathering speed. And the more operators, enterprises and OEMs can collaborate with one another, the faster it will pick up pace – and the sooner its value can be realised. At a time when operators’ revenues are under even greater pressure, NB-IoT enables them to create valuable new revenue streams through the provision of connectivity. Manufacturers, meanwhile, will benefit from reduced power consumption and new commercial opportunities, with devices easily able to be shipped overseas. Speaking to open the Future of Connectivity event, BICS’ CEO Daniel Kurgan stated how the events of the past year have highlighted how we really are a community. If this same collaborative mentality can be embraced for NB-IoT, it will at last live up to its promise.