As the old adage goes, “while the cat’s away, the mice will play”. In the case of NB-IOT, “when the spec’s delayed, LPWAN will play”, which is exactly what’s happening in the Internet of Things market today. The problem is that 3GPP (the 3rd Generation Partnership Project), the standards body which has been responsible for the 3G, 4G and 5G mobile standards, dropped the ball as far as the Internet of Things is concerned. Seduced by the slabs of black glass which suck up both our attention and the mobile networks’ spectrum, the 3GPP engineers totally forgot to design something to replace the old 2G workhorse of GPRS, which is responsible for most of today’s machine to machine communications. Instead, they spent all of their time designing high power, high speed, expensive variants of 4G to support an ongoing dynasty of iPhones, Galaxys and Pixels, none of which were any use for the Internet of Things.
Noticing this hole, a number of companies who had been developing proprietary, low cost, low speed, low power communication options saw an opportunity and created the Low Power WAN market. Whilst many perceived them as a group of Emperors with no clothes, the network operators were so desperate to have something to offer for upcoming IoT applications that they started engaging with them, rolling out LPWAN infrastructure. Whether they believed the LPWAN story, or just hoped it would fill a hole is difficult to ascertain, but no-one can deny that LPWAN is now firmly on the map, in the form of Sigfox, LoRa, Ingenu and a raft of others. To address that challenge to their hegemony, the GSM Association (GSMA) directed the 3GPP to assemble their own suit of imperial clothing which would be called the Narrow Band Internet of Things, or NB-IoT.
This is the story of why NB-IOT was too late, why it will fail in the short term, why it will win in the long term, and why the industry will struggle to make any money from it.