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Vodafone And Huawei’s NB-IoT Open Lab Can Be ‘Catalyst’ For IoT Development

Steve McCaskill is editor of TechWeekEurope and ChannelBiz. He joined as a reporter in 2011 and covers all areas of IT, with a particular interest in telecommunications, mobile and networking, along with sports technology.

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Huawei and Vodafone envision global network of open NB-IoT labs, claiming the standard is as important to IoT as the App Store was for smartphones

Huawei and Vodafone claim the world’s first ‘NB-IoT (Narrowband IoT) Open Lab’ in Newbury in Berkshire will act as a catalyst for the development of a single cellular standard for the Internet of Things (IoT).

NB-IoT is a proposed Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) technology, which makes it more efficient to connect devices that require long battery life or are in hard to reach areas using existing cellular networks.

NB-IoT

Huawei Vodafone NB-IoT Lab (1)Both companies have expressed their frustration at a lack of progress in finalising the standard, and claim that without it, cellular technology will be too power hungry and expensive to power the Internet of Things (IoT), paving the way for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and proprietary technologies like Sigfox to take control.

It is claimed NB-IoT is able to provide a battery life of ten years, costs $5 per module to deploy and has scalability, while at the same time providing the range of a cellular network. Many IoT devices are expected to be deployed away from mains electricity and it is simply not feasible or cost-efficient for the battery to be replaced frequently.

“Everything is connected, but virtually nothing on cellular,” Luke Ibbetson, Vodafone’s head of research and development said at the opening. “That’s a huge missed opportunity.”

Huawei and Vodafone have worked together on the standard since 2013, are both founding members of the NB-IoT Forum, and held a pilot smart metre programme with Spanish water firm Aguas de Valencia late last year.

Huawei Vodafone NB-IoT Lab (2)

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Global network

The Newbury open lab is envisioned as the first of many such facilities and is intended for application developers, device manufacturers and other ecosystem partners to test their wares in an end-to-end environment.

Here, there is space for developers to work and they can connect to the core Vodafone network and over the next few months, developer tool kits and SDKs will be made available.

“This is the first time such a lab has been created,” said Ibbetson. “It’s a step to engage with the developer ecosystem for NB-IoT.”

Eventually, it is hoped a global network of open labs will make it easier for developers and manufacturers to create services for multiple markets, with common testing and standardisation.

“We want people to go into their local lab and be able to deploy it anywhere in the planet,” he continued. “We can get massive scale with this compared to some of the more fragmented solutions that have done a good job of seeding the market.”

Potential applications

Huawei sees smart cities, smart tracking and smart utilities as the three main areas where NB-IoT can have an impact. Smart parking for example, could ease congestion and carbon emissions in cites, while smart tracking could help find a lost pet.

Vodafone believes smart metres are the ideal starting point for the standard point because the billions of gas, electricity and water metres in use around the world presents an opportunity to create devices and applications at scale.

Huawei Vodafone NB-IoT Lab (5)“Utility metres are an obvious first step because it gives us scale,” added Ibbetson. “This gives us a good anchor use case to start with.”

Steen Schelle Jensen from smart metre firm Kamstrup said NB-IoT has the potential to transform the water industry, which could become more efficient and help companies prioritise pipe replacement programmes, minimising water waste.

Basingstoke-based FarSite Communications agreed, noting that its ‘Netbin’ waste management system could become more cost effective as NB-IoT could allow a sensor to site in a bin for ten years, helping optimise collections and cleaning.

But even Vodafone admits it can’t foresee all the potential uses of the technology. Indeed, it thinks the open lab network will be a good opportunity to reach out to grassroots developers.

“Some of [the uses] are pretty obvious,” said Matt Beal, director of innovation and architecture at the Vodafone Group. “Others will be wild and wacky ideas we can’t anticipate. What we want to do is break down the barriers so it’s not just [for industry].”

Industry cooperation

But above all, both firms were keen to stress the need for cooperation. The GSMA has given its support to the NB-IoT Forum, which now has 18 operator members and 12 manufacturer partners and efforts gained momentum at Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona earlier this year.

“We congratulate ourselves on creating a technology with great capability, the real challenge now is to create an ecosystem,” said Ibbetson, who said new membership categories for the NB-IoT Forum would be created so even non-members of the GSMA could join.

“It’s not just about Vodafone and Huawei,” added James Chen, president if the Vodafone account department at Huawei. “We need lots of partners to come and work with us.”

Beal urged the mobile industry to temper its “competitive desires” and work together

“We see the open lab as a catalyst [for cellular IoT] like the App Store was for the smartphone world,” he said. “If we ‘push go’ now, we can launch the first application in the first half of this year.”

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