Wireless and Digital Services

The hidden leap forward at MWC17

By Robert Milner - Last updated: Monday, March 13, 2017
Image courtesy Deutsche Telekom

Image courtesy Deutsche Telekom

Remember when the iPhone 4S came out, back in 2011? If it’s all blurring into one, let me remind you. The media talk was all about the introduction of Siri, an improved camera and faster processing speeds. When Steve Jobs died the day after the phone’s launch, media interest followed this sad news, and the true significance of the iPhone 4S was left unremarked upon.

In fact the disruptive development with the iPhone 4S was that it was the first mass-market smartphone to support Bluetooth Low Energy (also known as Bluetooth Smart), forcing other smartphone manufacturers to follow suit through 2012. Crucially, this new technology was opened up to the developer community. Bluetooth Low Energy, supporting low power consumption and cheaper devices, unleashed a new generation of applications, devices and services in the smart home, health, sport and fitness sectors. The fitness tracker on your wrist would not be there without the iPhone 4S, the final piece in the technology jigsaw. And all of those iPhone reviews I’ve linked to above? Not one mentions Bluetooth.

So why the history lesson? Because I think something similar just happened at Mobile World Congress 2017.

It’s generally accepted that the biggest news of the show was the relaunch of the Nokia 3310, a low-spec throwback with nostalgic appeal. Beyond that there was much interest in Sony’s latest smartphone with a super slow mo camera, as well as autonomous vehicles and various VR products.

But really none of these developments represent a leap forward. For that, we should look to Deutsche Telekom, who announced the first widespread NB-IoT roll-out across Europe. The roll-out takes in eight countries: Germany, the Netherlands, Greece, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Slovakia and Croatia. This news attracted very little comment (after all, mobile operators have never had the sex appeal of the handset vendors) but it marks a step change in momentum, from what had previously been limited NB-IoT pilots, supporting specific applications.

Why you should care about NB-IoT

Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) is a Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) technology that connects ‘things’ on already established mobile networks. It’s built to handle small amounts of two-way data, securely and reliably. Power consumption is very low, component costs are low and it covers long distances.

NB-IoT is perfectly suited to IoT applications that need to send small amounts of data over an extended period of time – in other words it’s perfect for a great many of the IoT applications discussed today. Because it operates in licensed spectrum, NB-IoT is secure and can have guaranteed quality of service.

NB-IoT and other “official” cellular LPWAN technologies are competing with unlicensed rivals such as Sigfox and LoRa. However NB-IoT now has the weight of commercial deployment behind it and I expect that Deutsche Telekom’s large scale roll-out will ensure that NB-IoT plays a major role in what many are calling the “fourth industrial revolution”.

No more dumb pipe

Standardisation of NB-IoT was completed in June of 2016. Chips and test equipment have been made available in the months since then. The final piece of this jigsaw was for the mobile networks to support it.

This is an excellent opportunity for the mobile network operators to reclaim a central role in the mobile technology of the future. Having been relegated to the (unfair) status of ‘dumb pipe’ by the smartphone and over-the-top services such as Facebook, Skype and WhatsApp, NB-IoT should see them fightback, and the existence of competing technologies should ensure healthy competitive pressure.

At Cambridge Consultants we’re technology agnostic, but take a particular interest in NB-IoT. We recently completed our first NB-IoT product development, using the first generation of chips and test equipment, and we’re now expecting an explosion in NB-IoT new product development not seen since the iPhone 4S unleashed the potential of Bluetooth Low Energy.

When that happens, I’m expecting that we’ll look back on MWC17 as the year we all looked in the wrong direction, and in ignoring the European rollout of NB-IoT we missed something truly seismic.