OnQ Blog

Harmonizing the industry on a narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) specification

Sep 28, 2015

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“The battle lines are being drawn for the future of cellular IoT…” is what the headlines read going into the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) radio access network (RAN) Plenary meeting held earlier this month in Phoenix. The group was meeting to discuss, amongst other things, the important topic of how to further evolve cellular technologies to meet the connectivity needs of the rapidly growing Internet of Things (IoT).

At Qualcomm, we have been talking about the importance of cellular technologies in creating a connectivity fabric for everything—leveraging the ubiquitous coverage, reliability, and scale of cellular, seamlessly interworking with short-range wireless technologies, like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, to offer a rich and varied set of IoT services. We all know how great cellular technologies like 4G LTE are for delivering high-performance mobile broadband experiences on our smartphone. And now the 3GPP is working on various initiatives to optimize (cost, power, coverage) cellular technologies for the small, sporadic data transmissions common in the Internet of utility meters, object trackers, fitness devices, and other “Things.”

Last year we introduced LTE-M (enhanced Machine-Type Communications) which will deliver a suite of features, as part of Release 13 of the 3GPP standard, to lower power consumption, reduce device complexity/cost, and provide deeper coverage to reach challenging locations (e.g., deep inside buildings). Beyond LTE-M, the 3GPP has been also investigating a new cellular technology to scale even further down in complexity and power—addressing the low throughput IoT applications sometimes referred to as Low Power Wide Area (LPWA).

Which leads us back to the important 3GPP Plenary meeting earlier this month, where competing technology proposals were on the table for addressing these low-throughput IoT services with a narrowband technology. On one side, was the potential to maximize cost and power savings by delivering a clean-slate design. And on the other, was maximizing reuse and coexistence with today’s LTE Advanced technology and deployments. At risk—fragmentation—with potentially two competing standards in the market for cellular IoT. Or even worse— a stalemate—where this new radio technology, critical to the growth of cellular in IoT, was delayed to future 3GPP Releases.

But luckily this story has a happy ending, and the group was able to come up with a harmonized technology proposal with very broad industry support as can be seen from the number of companies supporting the approved Release 13 Work Item (3GPP RP-151621). As Dino Flore, Senior Director of Technical Standards at Qualcomm and the Chairman of the 3GPP RAN stated, “It took us some twists and turns to get there. But we have now set a clear path in Release 13 to meet the needs of the 3GPP industry to further address the promising IoT market.”

But the reality is this story’s happy ending is no luck at all. It took a lot of lengthy discussions across the entire ecosystem represented at the 3GPP Plenary meeting. And Qualcomm, with significant technology positions on all options, played a central role in this harmonization. The resulting new narrowband radio technology, NB-IOT, will provide improved indoor coverage, support of massive number of low-throughput Things, low-delay sensitivity, ultra-low device cost, lower device power consumption, and optimized network architecture. The technology can be deployed in-band, utilizing resource blocks within normal LTE carrier, or in the unused resource blocks within a LTE carrier’s guard-band, or standalone for deployments in dedicated spectrum. The technology is also particularly suitable for the refarming of GSM channels.

There are still some details on the technology proposal to be finalized. NB-IOT will deliver narrowband operation with 180 kHz bandwidth for both the downlink and uplink. The downlink will be OFDMA with two options for numerology being considered. On the uplink, two different options are being considered—FDMA with GMSK modulation and/or SC-FDMA. The 3GPP expects to finalize these options in the RAN Plenary meeting planned for December in order to ensure NB-IOT is a part of the Release 13 specification expected to be finalized early in 2016.

Together this new NB-IOT technology and LTE-M nicely rounds out the 3GPP cellular IoT portfolio as shown below with various ongoing initiatives that scale cellular technologies to connect a much wider variation of consumer and enterprise use cases. The limitations for NB-IOT in scaling up in data rate, latency, and mobility make it very complementary with LTE-M. This now provides 3GPP operators with a portfolio of cellular technologies that provide globally standardized, reliable (based on licensed spectrum) solutions to meet a rich and varied set of IoT services. Furthermore, these solutions are being designed so that operators can maximally reuse their deployed network infrastructure and will not have to deploy a brand new network to address the IoT market.

Scaling cellular to connect a wider range of consumer & enterprise use cases

We look forward to continuing to provide the latest information on these cellular IoT technologies moving forward. We now have a rich, clear 3GPP roadmap for addressing IoT services—trailblazing technologies for 5G which we envision will provide even more scalability to adapt to these extreme variations in requirements. Stay tuned to get the latest information and Qualcomm perspectives on future wireless technologies by joining our mailing list!