Deep beneath a manhole cover, miles away from its nearest hub, a smart meter wakes up, sends packets of analytic data into the cloud and goes back to sleep again. While this may not sound groundbreaking, the technology that drives this process is a breakthrough that is dramatically reducing costs and complexity and increasing flexibility for utility companies the world over.
This technology is Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) and to understand its brilliance we must first understand the problems it solves.
Narrowband, wide reach
NB-IoT, first standardised in 2016, is a Low-Power Wide-Area Network (LPWAN) IoT technology that solves the problem of devices that require indoor coverage and which work with small amounts of data over long periods of time.
The Internet of Things (IoT) and the advanced connectivity and insights it has to offer is revolutionising almost every industry, but it has a last-mile problem. While the cloud infrastructure required to collect and analyse IoT data is ready and waiting, until recently there was no reliable wireless infrastructure available that offered the low-cost, low-power, long-range capabilities required to reliably connect smart meters on a massive scale.
Many IoT applications, such as those used by smart homes, factories and supermarkets work over relatively short transmission paths. These applications can be easily linked with LAN or Wi-Fi connectivity or near-field technology like NFC (near-field communication), Bluetooth or RFID (radio frequency identification). However, applications and devices that operate over larger distances need to use a mobile network to leverage all the benefits of the cloud.
Smart meters are nothing new for the utility sector. For years, companies have been installing them throughout their territories to monitor usage of water and energy in near real-time, helping to manage supply and demand and reduce costs for their customers. However, it can be difficult to connect meters that are installed under the ground, deep inside buildings or located in rural areas far away from the nearest radio mast.
NB-IoT, first standardised in 2016, is a Low-Power Wide-Area Network (LPWAN) IoT technology that solves the problem. Specifically designed for devices that require indoor coverage and which work with small amounts of data over long periods of time, NB-IoT enables smart meters in more challenging deployments to communicate directly with the cloud over a strong and reliable mobile network.
But that’s not all...
In addition to its wider reach, NB-IoT also offers faster throughput of data without any limitations on how often data can be transmitted. Flexible power-saving modes minimise chatter on the network and extend battery life. In many cases, battery life can be up to 10-15 years.
NB-IoT has also been designed to reduce hardware costs. From antennas to chipset fabrication, the simple design of Narrowband will continue to drive down the price of hardware as the technology is rolled out far and wide.
3 breathes new life into Sweden’s smart meters
The number of IoT devices in Sweden already exceeds its entire population. The introduction and wide deployment of NB-IoT allows small and large companies to extend their offerings to devices that were previously difficult or impossible to connect to.
3 Sweden is one of the first to recognise and utilise the benefits of NB-IoT and just recently completed field tests with E.ON to test the coverage and functionality that NB-IoT has to offer. During testing, no measurement values were missed and the results indicated that the technology is reliable, easy to install and cost-effective.
“We performed field tests together with Comsel System for a couple of months in this smart metering project in Skåne. The tests, which leveraged 3's NB-IoT network guard-band implementation, showed that coverage increased dramatically for locations where it is normally weak like in basements and inaccessible locations in sparsely populated areas. It is very interesting to see how the NB-IoT guard-band technology can be used to better results in this context," said Göran Brandt, Head of IoT/M2M, 3 Sweden.
What’s coming next for NB-IoT?
Experts predict that by 2025 there will be 75 billion devices connected to the Internet of Things. This huge volume of devices, whether they are sending small or large chunks of data, will require the wireless networks to support them. NB-IoT is predicted to be the forerunner in the race to become the best LPWAN option and will serve a wide range of devices that will rely on its unique features.
Smart meters are just the tip of a very large iceberg. In the future, NB-IoT will become the defacto standard for controlling street lighting, monitoring parking spaces, reporting environmental conditions and many other applications that require a cost-effective, low-power way to connect thousands of devices in field.