NTT DoCoMo shutters NB-IoT service

Leading Japanese operator says goodbye to industry low power IoT option.

Less than a year after launching its NB-IoT service, Japanese operator NTTDoCoMo said in a note published on its website that it will discontinue the service.

The advisory used only vague language for the reasons for the close down, but it seems to have been a business decision. The company said that “in light of the current business environment, we have decided to stop providing this communication system in order to concentrate management resources.” That looks as though it wants to concentrate efforts on selling IoT technology classes that are getting more traction with customers.

It said it could continue to support Cat.1 and LTE-M devices and services.

Analyst Matt Hatton, once of specialist IoT consultancy Machina Research and now recent co-founder of Transforma Insights, said in a Tweet that the closure is “big news” as the “lead carrier in world #3 market ditches NB-IoT. ”

He added: “I know there’s some teething problems and it wasn’t quite as simple (or cheap) an upgrade as everyone suggested. Probably just a blip with them waiting for whatever the 5G mMTC ends up looking like (basically NB-IoT).”

Omdia analyst Lee Ratliff, also responding to the news on Twitter, said, “I’m sure this is indicative of how much NB-IoT is being used in Japan. I don’t believe they’d shut it down if they had significant uptake. No mention of the shutdown being temporary.”

Ratcliff added that the vast majority of NB-IoT devices are connected in China. Elsewhere, he said, the business case is less certain. The GSMA says on this page that there have been 93 NB-IoT network launches – 17 of them by Vodafone entities.

NB-IoT was defined within 3GPP Release 13 as a “Low Power Wide Area” (LPWA) IoT technology class, for use over LTE networks. LTE networks require a specific upgrade to support NB-IoT connectivity.

Later, it was decided that NB-IoT’s characteristics actually met the ITU’s IMT-2020 (5G) requirements, and NB-IoT and LTE-M were both then proposed as 5G candidates for IoT by 3GPP. That meant NB-IoT and LTE-M transmissions could be placed in 5G NR signals, and development continued within the 5G standardisation time frame – ie R15 and R16 included enhancements to LTE-M and NB-IoT operation.

So, if NTT DoCoMo is shuttering NB-IoT to wait for a future version of 5G IoT,  as Hatton mused, then it will, in essence, be stepping back into NB-IoT specifications . That means it seems unlikely that technology is going to revamp the business model any time soon.

So, questions remain. Are we seeing that Japanese enterprise demand for cellular LPWA IoT is not strong enough to justify this carrier continuing operating that business line? And what does that mean (if anything?) for 5G IoT?

TMN has asked NTT DoCoMo and some of its IoT partners for further clarification.