Connecting rural communities with NB-IoT

How NB-IoT can help rural communities gain access to reliable connectivity to enable multiple 5G use cases to operate side by side.

With the first network deployments beginning back in late 2017 and global commercial rollouts starting in 2018, Narrowband Internet of Things (NB-IoT ) is not a new technology, but it hasn’t seen the takeup that was anticipated. The technology, which has been designed from the ground up to allow reliable, low power, low data rate connectivity, could provide a cost-effective IoT connectivity solution in remote areas.

There are lots of applications that require good coverage and reliable communication but do not need the data rates that we associate with modern “broadband” systems. The laws of physics say that the more data you need to send, the more energy you need to use. NB-IoT takes advantage of the fact that it is sending data slowly to get increased range and better coverage. In fact, it is designed to operate down to a signal level 100 times smaller than the GPRS (2G) system which is used for most narrowband wireless data services today.

NB-IoT is a key feature within 4G and 5G specifications and of the “Massive IoT” promise of 5G. The low power requirements of NB-IoT mean that in very low usage applications where data is only transmitted very occasionally, a terminal may have a battery life of up to 10 years. Of course, if there is a requirement for more data to be sent or a quicker response is needed, more power will be consumed and the battery life will be shorter.

The 5G RuralDorset project has been exploring the use of NB-IoT for their use cases. Rural full-fibre internet providers, Wessex Internet, are using Vodafone NB-IoT coverage for their use cases in the agricultural sector. The project is trialling different devices with a number of sensors installed around a farm using NBIoT connectivity. The sensors monitor soil moisture and pH levels, temperature and humidity, as well as diesel tank levels and animal welfare. As the devices only use a small amount of data for signal, they have experienced really good coverage from Vodafone and are expecting this to improve as NB-IoT is rolled out further.

Whilst the project has reported very good NB-IoT coverage and signal propagation, challenges have been faced with the operation of the NB-IoT devices. The project has noted a number of key findings during its testing phase.

Premature technology

Existing NBIoT devices are not built for the agriculture sector specifically and there are very limited UK suppliers that sell these devices. This led to the project delaying their testing phase whilst they agri-proofed the devices. The technology for agricultural use will take some time to develop and therefore we could see the real fruits of labour in this sector much later on. The project will continue to demonstrate the benefits of the technology to the farming community through its trials.

Another barrier was the availability of devices. The project found that NB-IoT devices were not as easy to source in the UK and there were limited supplies of NB-IoT devices due to a worldwide low supply of silicon. When the kit was finally supplied from abroad, there were compatibility issues with the devices connecting to the network as data is transferred from the sensor through the third party manufacturer’s server and to the network, which is where compatibility issues arise.

The project is now also trying to build devices in house rather than relying on third parties, but it could take some time to deliver the right solutions.

Get to know your suppliers 

When going out to market, it’s important to get to know your suppliers early to build those relationships and encourage early buy-in. One of the obstacles the project has encountered is understanding the suppliers’ tech specifications and the quality of documentation of the sensors before use.

As manufacturers did not provide clarity in the process of setting up devices, Wessex Internet spent a large amount of its time configuring devices and contacting manufacturers to set up devices correctly. Building those relationships with suppliers and understanding their technical specifications when purchasing their devices will avoid any time wasted around understanding compatibility and interoperability in the testing phase.

Challenge of data ownership

Another new challenge will be around data ownership as the sector transitions to systems that will be more data reliant. This will be a key issue going forward for farmers as they adopt this new technology. Careful attention will need to be paid to data ownership. With different parties managing the enormous amounts of data that will be generated, appropriate structures need to be in place to ensure that ownership of this data – and value gained – from it is apportioned fairly to the advantage of the farmer.

In regard to IoT sensors, the agricultural sector lags behind other industries. However,  a turning point is on the horizon. Adoption is likely to be transitory as we see a generational in farming.

Strengthening preventative care

Turning to the healthcare sector, NB-IoT connectivity could provide an improved assisted living service for elderly people in areas where the use of a mobile/ cellular careline may otherwise be challenging. Dorset Council has been testing this use case by deploying a small number of sensors in homes of elderly or vulnerable persons.

The devices detect movements, activities, and temperature levels in the home and send email notifications and alerts when abnormal activities are detected, for example, lack of movement for a sustained period of time. The devices also measure heating in the home. Using a rag rating system, those who are monitoring vulnerable patients remotely are sent a regular status change to family members or carers. This enables a more targeted response for carers and emergency services, potentially saving money and time for the health and social care system. This effective form of preventive care could decrease the number of hospital admissions.

While this is currently being trialled using a small sample, Dorset Council is trying to expand the pilot with GP practices to encourage widespread adoption. To date, they’ve shared lessons and key findings with other NHS trusts in Wolverhampton and Shropshire. While the use cases are progressing well, longer testing times – between 12 to 18 months – would have benefited the use case trial to capture more insightful data on users and their activities.

Dorset Council would like to team up with local health teams and other NHS Trusts to test this device further and encourage wider adoption. They’re also working with researchers at Southampton University to investigate whether remote digital monitoring is going to prove viable and make an impact in the healthcare sector.

Overall, NBIoT could provide a step in the right direction for more affordable, rural connectivity. While the technology is still premature in the agricultural sector, there is certainly scope for development. Currently, MNOs are mainly promoting NBIoT to their large corporate customers. If the massive market potential is to be realised, there is a need to engage potential developers at all levels in the ecosystem with readily available guides and prototyping kits for solution developers and with published coverage maps.