Wherever you look in terms of the latest technology, the “Internet of Things” (IoT) is on the fast track – both in households and professional environments. Anyone who installs gadgets such as intelligent smoke detectors, thermostats or washing machines in their private living space has a great advantage: the devices access the household’s existing internet infrastructure usually via WiFi, allowing communication between devices or with connected cloud services.
Yet, especially in a professional environment, communication in the “Internet of Things” (IoT) has specific requirements when it comes to transmission networks. Many application scenarios for the Internet of Things require mobile transmission technology because either the devices move, or wide-area coverage is necessary, or there are no on-site connection options and these must first be set up at great expense. Moreover, the focus of some IoT application scenarios is not always data rates, latency or response times, but rather a need for the networked “things” to communicate using as little energy as possible to ensure that the installed batteries last for several years. The radio modules used should also be as affordable as possible so that, in view of the large quantities, the overall costs do not go through the roof. A challenge often faced in networking is ensuring that the interconnected devices also remain accessible under adverse radio conditions – for example, energy meters in deep cellars, or packages inside steel-clad freight wagons.
New standard, diverse benefits
None of the conventional transmission technologies available today meet these requirements. Wired connections are suitable for all IoT application scenarios in buildings and offices, but fall short as soon as devices become mobile or where cables or a power supply cannot be installed on site. Wireless technologies such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or Zigbee don’t have the necessary range for wide-area rollouts, and although others such as 3G or 4G offer a range of several kilometres, they’re designed for high data throughput and therefore expensive and energy intensive (a typical 4G IoT module, for example, costs 40 dollars, while offering a battery life of less than a year).
This is where the new Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) transmission technology comes into play. NB-IoT is a Low-Power Wide-Area (LPWA) radio standard, which is transmitted over established mobile radio networks that are already available today. The advantages are extremely low energy consumption, excellent building penetration and thus coverage, as well as low transmission and component costs.
A comparison is worthwhile
In recent years, a host of widely differing technologies have been developed by companies, consortium partners, standardisation organisations and alliances in the field of LPWA. Apart from Narrowband IoT, the best-known are LoRa and SigFox. Compared with LoRa and SigFox, Narrowband IoT achieves a higher signal strength, enabling the device to communicate better in areas with poor radio reception. Moreover, it achieves higher data rates, which besides pure data transmission, leaves enough leeway for security-relevant topics such as authentication, encryption or (“over-the-air”) patching of firmware.
Another major difference is the unlicensed frequency band. These unlicensed bands can affect the performance quality of LoRa and SigFox because they’re also used for various services such as wireless alarm systems and remote controls, resulting in severe network loads. This can lead to data loss due to collisions and faults. Furthermore, these unlicensed frequency bands can be used for data transmission by anyone – including hackers (e.g. for denial-of-service attacks).
Pilot project with Vodafone
The advantages already mentioned in the field of energy and cost efficiency, security and better connectivity for the mentioned application scenarios are the reasons why DB Systel is already conducting a pilot project with Vodafone as an exclusive partner, before the official market launch, to test the expected benefits within the Group. The trend-setting nature of the project was highlighted by Christa Koenen, CEO of DB Systel, in her speech on the inauguration of the Vodafone IoT Lab in Dusseldorf in early February:
“Digitisation projects within the scope of the Internet of Things require efficient transmission technology. Narrowband IoT has the potential of becoming a key component in our IoT value-added chain. It can significantly improve communication between things and can be implemented cost-effectively. We can imagine many possible uses, such as an intelligent waste bin that sends out signals when it needs emptying, or monitoring of technical systems in areas of poor radio reception.”
The first functional tests took place at the Vodafone IoT Lab in mid-January 2017, and from April onwards, field testing will start in the Berlin region. The aim is to develop possible application scenarios. DB Services was successfully recruited as the first partner in the pilot phase. For good reason: the jointly developed intelligent waste bins are lending themselves to test operation with NB-IoT.
One further advantage of the pilot project: Vodafone is making Narrowband IoT available to DB Systel and its customers precisely where it’s needed – regardless of a nationwide rollout.
Component for the digitisation chain
IoT projects always consider the entire added-value chain. Alongside other transmission technologies that offer different advantages depending on the usage scenario, Narrowband IoT can become an efficient connectivity component for implementing projects in the Internet of Things. But above all, this transmission technology is energy-efficient and cost-effective.
A key task is therefore to identify more and more reusable IoT components on the basis of the IoT added-value chain and thus make the technology “consumable” for customers: from sensor technology or data recording, data transmission, storage and interpretation, to the integration of usable information into company processes and applications. The list of DB Systel tools is already a long one – and it’s being extended piece by piece.
We’re taking a reality check.
So this is the primary objective of the test: to check the promises made in the data sheet, that is, determine whether the data rates really can be achieved and whether the technology can be applied on a wide scale and what level of cost and energy efficiency it can return. “We’re taking a reality check”, says Jörn Petereit. And there are already many ideas for which Narrowband IoT could be used.