NB-IoT rollout good, but not good enough

Not enabling NB-IoT roaming is leaving money on the table, operators are told.

Latent demand for NB-IoT services is being left unmet because operators are not providing international roaming services for the low power cellular IoT class.

Speaking during a media session held online, Fernando Llobegrat, Head of Enterprise Sales at roaming services and interconnect provider BICS, said that business customers are parking projects and leaving money unspent because the international coverage they need is not present.

“We try to explain to customers that coverage is slowly coming: it’s available in different countries, the operator business case is developing, but customers say OK we will then wait.” Customers need NB-IoT capabilities that are not provided by LoRa or Sigfox, but NB-Iot is not ready, so they put deployments on hold, Lllobregat said.

Cyrille Saulet, EMEA sales manager of chip developer Avnet Silica, said that for businesses looking for an international solution, “The main problem is coverage. If you need a multi-country or global solution you meet a tough issue as you need to engage in discussion with several operators to have good coverage.”

A lot of customers say don’t understand why cannot deploy. We need to educate the telecom operator about that market perspective

Industry body the GSMA says there are over 100 commercial LTE NB-IoT deployments globally, with projects spread around the world, although China is very much leading the way in volume. A report from analyst Berg Insight, published in May 2020, said that Nb-IoT adoption was increasing but added that,”A key barrier to growth of NB-IoT adoption outside of China has been the lack of NB-IoT roaming agreements between network operators.”

Saulet said that hardware costs are descending, and would bring module prices down to around $2, compared to $5 today. He added that NB-IoT devices required 10x less power than 2G modules and therefore last a lot longer in the market. In other words, there’s plenty of good reasons to believe in market momentum.

“A lot of customers want to deploy, and there are lots of manufacturers for hardware, but when they want to engage in a global deployment they meet coverage issues. So today the demand is there, OEMs want to deploy solutions, but when it comes to associate connectivity, they meet an issue.”

“A lot of customers say they don’t understand why they cannot deploy, when there is so much hardware and so many modules available. We need to educate the telecom operator about that market perspective.”

Talia Goldstein, Head of Global Roaming at BICS, said that the company signed 20 new NB-IoT interconnect customers this year, and expects to sign 20 more next year. A recent blog post by BICS said that it offers connectivity in 30 countries.

A group of operators -Orange, KPN, AT&T, Swisscom – deploying a different category, LTE-M, said that they had established international interoperability on a multilateral basis back in 2019. This year Deutsche Telekom completed its LTE-M rolout and said that it would provide device roaming with Orange in France and Belgium. (DT also offers NB-IoT roaming in a cross-deals with Vodafone and Telia.) But Goldstein said that LTE-M doesn’t offer operators a sufficiently robust business model because they can only charge for usage, rather than per number of active devices, and that device discovery is difficult. And there are still many fewer LTE-M networks than NB-IoT.

NB-IoT allows an operator to discover if a device is active, and make a monthly subscription charge based upon that, she said. A key missing part of the chain is being able to charge for activity and pass bills on between operators, she said. Up to date, much activity is still being undertaken by swapping spreadsheets and other manual methods.

“It’s very important to understand where traffic is coming from. Today there are a lot of different flows on roaming agreements.”

So why are operators not investing enough in coverage to enable a greater level of roaming internationally?  If you have relatively modern LTE base stations, then enabling NB-IoT can be done via a software upgrade, and there is no requirement to build extra sites to extend coverage. But even for operators that have committed, it is a process they have addressed a few sites at a time, optimising sites on an ongoing basis to ensure that they get the full benefit of NB-IoT’s low power levels. TMN has been told that both Telefonica in Spain and Vodafone in the UK took their NB-IoT rollouts project by project, for example.

But it seems the main barrier to wider rollout is still the other side of the RoI model – the R or return rate. Revenues from IoT connectivity are low, and rising up the “value chain” is not necessarily easy for operators that face a fragmented market with lots of divergent requirements.

Adding in market support for technologies that would make multi-operator engagement easier – such as eSIM technology eUICC (Embedded Universal Integrated Circuit Card) that can enable the profile of a device to be altered remotely – is also not straightforward. Operators must be able to integrate their Remote SIM Provisioning Systems so that profiles can be upgraded as a device moves from one network to another.

Operators also need to invest in systems that can provide enterprises with visibility and control of their devices, usage and costs. It is in this sort of area, of course, that a provider such as BICS aims to add value.

Avnet’s Saulet said that the fragmented nature of the market also makes it hard for operators to engage beyond a few major customers. And the lack of an international solution means a customer could end up paying concurrent subscriptions in multiple countries, which quickly invalidates their own business model.

“Operators have an IoT team in place and try to catch big businesses for one country – but for the rest we don’t know how they can answer because the customer wants to have a multi-country solution. Requests come and we can’t find an operator to provide service coverage. We can create a lot of business if we have this international coverage,” Saulet said.