How NB-IoT bombed: An IoT tale of hubris and no-show
“Waiting for NB-IoT” could be a new telecom-themed play in tribute to Samuel Beckett. It would feature a couple of world-weary executives reminiscing about their time in the industry as they await the arrival of NB-IoT. Like Godot in the Beckett original, the eponymous technology would be destined never to show up.
Flung together as hastily as a child’s sandcastle, NB-IoT is looking like a soggy old mess and an example of extreme hubris by a sometimes cocksure industry. In a ranking of hyped telecom technologies that eventually bombed, it must be one of the lead contenders for the top spot in the last 25 years. 3G, now being switched off worldwide, is probably the closest rival.
NB-IoT’s overly swift development pre-2017 was triggered by the emergence outside the mobile industry of super-efficient technologies for connecting all manner of basic “things,” from temperature monitors in factories to smart meters in homes. Using unlicensed spectrum, these rivals, with names like Sigfox and LoRa, initially put the heebie-jeebies up cellular. NB-IoT, its licensed-frequency riposte, would see them off, said Matt Beal, the director of technology strategy for Vodafone, one of NB-IoT’s devotees.
“NB-IoT will crush Sigfox and LoRa because it means there will be no need for them,” Beal bragged to Light Reading in April 2016, as Vodafone opened a dedicated NB-IoT lab at its UK headquarters. The operator was then forecasting 1.4 billion connections based on so-called “low-power, wide-area network” (LPWAN) technologies, including NB-IoT, by 2020.
Not going to plan
It has not quite worked out as planned. In the June update of its mobility reports, which track telecom technologies, Ericsson reckoned only 100 million connections were based on either NB-IoT or LTE-M, a higher-speed alternative, at the end of 2019. Although it classed 1.5 billion connections as “cellular IoT,” most of these used good old-fashioned 2G.
Other data gatherers have disclosed similarly low figures. Omdia, a sister company to Light Reading, believes the number of NB-IoT connections crept past the 100 million mark at some point in the last six months. If that is higher than the amount implied by Ericsson’s report, Omdia analysts think nearly all the NB-IoT business is currently in China, aided by a government push. “It’s been disappointing, as a whole,” says Josh Builta, Omdia’s IoT director. “Outside of China, which is almost all the NB-IoT connections to date, numbers have not shown much growth and some operators have ended NB-IoT service altogether.”
Japan’s NTT DoCoMo is perhaps the most high-profile service provider to have given up waiting for NB-IoT. In March, it revealed it would switch off the service it had launched a year earlier so that it could “concentrate management resources.” Dish, the US operator building the country’s fourth mobile network, abandoned its own efforts in May, writing off $253 million in the process. “Sales are pitiful compared to the ‘billions’ forecast and revenues so small that the operators hardly notice,” says William Webb, the CEO of Webb Search Limited, a consulting business.
That neatly sums up one of the main problems for NTT DoCoMo and others with cold feet – the cost of maintaining a business that makes a negligible impact on sales. Vodafone, for instance, had 85 million IoT connections in total at the end of March but made only €783 million ($877 million) in IoT revenues for the year, a figure equal to less than 2% of its group sales. Judging by Ericsson and Omdia data, most of these connections were on 2G networks, however. Operators can justify keeping those on life support because they prop up not only the IoT business but also voice and roaming services.
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