LTE standard for machines gets the green light

The NarrowBand IoT standard would let Internet of Things devices communicate for years on a battery

20150916 parking meter sign

A sign seen in Boston in September 2015 points drivers to a centralized parking pay station. 

Credit: Stephen Lawson

The international body in charge of LTE will standardize a version of that technology specifically for the Internet of Things, taking on rival systems for connecting low-power equipment like parking meters and industrial sensors. 

At a workshop last week in Phoenix, members of the 3GPP agreed to define a standard for NB-IoT (NarrowBand IoT), which would be based on the dominant global cellular system but tuned for devices that typically rely on batteries and only send small amounts of information.

NB-IoT will be one of several technologies designed for low speed but long reach, key criteria for IoT networks. Devices like sensors and industrial equipment often are set up to operate for years in isolation with no service visits. Nearly 1.5 million devices will be connected to these so-called LPWA (low-power wide-area) networks by 2020, according to Machina Research. 

Some major vendors are already planning to make low-power LTE products. Earlier this month, Intel, Ericsson and Nokia said they would work together to commercialize a technology called Narrow-Band LTE. Intel said it anticipates commercial rollouts next year.

At the Phoenix workshop, 3GPP explored both Narrow-Band LTE and another proposal called Narrowband CIoT. In a blog post, Dino Flore, the head of 3GPP's Radio Access Network group, said participants reached a compromise between two competing proposals. But no final decisions are expected until December. 

NB-IoT will provide for better indoor coverage, low latency, low device cost and a massive number of connected devices, the 3GPP says. Service providers will be able to deploy it in portions of their existing LTE spectrum or on frequencies that have been repurposed from use with GSM. Many carriers offer IoT services over GSM and want to convert those channels to LTE, a much more efficient system that allows for smaller devices in the field. 

While NB-IoT could reuse some LTE infrastructure, other LPWA systems are being built from scratch. Sigfox has set up networks in France, Spain and other parts of Europe and is starting a U.S. rollout. Ingenu, formerly On-Ramp Wireless, says it will build a network across the U.S. within two years. 

ITWorld DealPost: The best in tech deals and discounts.