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Vodafone’s NB-IoT service has taken a long time to reach its domestic market, but the UK-based operator has just launched its network and signed up Scottish Power as its first “trial” customer.

The energy provider is using NB-IoT in subterranean “link boxes” that can overheat and catch fire. If a sensor detects the link box is dangerously hot, a notification is sent over the NB-IoT network. Scottish Power can then dispatch an engineer to fix the problem before any damage is done.

Scott Petty, the Vodafone UK chief technology officer, said the operator would not have been able to connect the link box without NB-IoT. “The sensor itself runs on a double-A battery for a minimum of five years. It costs less than €2 [$2.35] and allows you to send a very small amount of data,” he told reporters during a recent press briefing. “It suits a specific use case of low-cost sensors and is incredibly valuable.”

Vodafone Group plc has been one of Europe’s most vigorous proponents of NB-IoT as a connectivity option for devices that require long battery life and transmit small bursts of data. Although it missed launch targets in several European markets last year, Vodafone now appears to have introduced the technology into eight countries, including the UK. Launches are also planned in Hungary and Romania.

NB-IoT was developed by the cellular industry in response to the challenge from so-called “low power, wide area” network technologies such as LoRa and Sigfox. Using unlicensed spectrum, those have been far better than mainstream cellular technologies at providing low-cost connectivity for smart meters, monitoring devices and similar gadgets.

Although built as an extension of the 4G mobile standard, NB-IoT is now considered to be a 5G technology that will address the “massive machine-type communications” use case. More recently standardised radio technologies are intended to support “enhanced mobile broadband” and “ultra-reliable low-latency communications,” the other categories of 5G service.

The NB-IoT standard looks set to figure prominently in Vodafone’s UK 5G plans. The operator aims to launch 5G in some communities in mid-2019 and has indicated that IoT applications may be among the first it supports in rural areas.

In the trials with Scottish Power, NB-IoT has allowed Vodafone to cover places it would not have been able to reach using mainstream cellular technology, said Petty.

“Where 2G would penetrate a building but struggle to go through flooring, NB-IoT will go through about three meters of flooring,” he told reporters. “And LoRa has the same penetration problem that 2G has.”

Petty reckons demand for low-cost sensors and the need for long battery life, in circumstances where there is no connection to the electricity grid, will also fuel interest in NB-IoT.

Vodafone is running NB-IoT over some of its 900MHz spectrum in the trials with Scottish Power, he said.

Across Europe, the operator has been ramping up its investments in NB-IoT in an effort to meet emerging customer needs. Earlier this month, it promised it would “double” the number of cell sites in its European NB-IoT footprint by the end of next year. Vodafone estimates it can support more than 50,000 devices in a single NB-IoT cell “without congestion.”

Vodafone today has around 74 million IoT devices on its global networks, up from 52 million at the end of March 2017, although it is unclear how many of these are based on NB-IoT rather than older cellular technologies. The company’s last earnings report shows that it made €197 million ($232 million) in IoT revenues in the April-to-June quarter, up from €183 million ($215 million) a year earlier. IoT revenues accounted for less than 2% of total sales.

Petty denied that the UK was lagging the “Western world” on the rollout of NB-IoT, despite its late introduction into the market, but acknowledged that China had taken a significant lead.

“China has a different policy and the government has driven NB-IoT in a whole range of apps in a way that our society wouldn’t be happy with,” he said in response to questions from Light Reading.

A major supporter of NB-IoT, leading operator China Mobile Communications Corp. claimed to support around 384 million IoT connections at the end of June and said its business had grown by 155 million in the first six months of 2018.

 

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